Monday, June 01, 2015

How to listen to Lieder? Insights from Franz Schubert...and Joni Mitchell

A group of Spivey Hall Friends is about to attend the 2015 Schubertiade Schwarzenberg festival in the Voralberg region of western Austria later this month. In addition to hearing piano recitals, chamber music, and chamber orchestra performances, there's a wealth of singing on offer, with an emphasis, naturally, on works by Franz Schubert.

A member of our group -- an avid Spivey Hall fan with discerning ears and an open mind who attends many, many concerts and wishes to appreciate Lieder recitals more deeply -- mentioned he'd be interested in attending a lecture or even a course on "What to Listen for in Lieder." Various discussions have ensued, and this idea might yet find its way into Spivey Hall's 25th Anniversary Season celebrations.

Since this idea arose, I've come back to it frequently. The Lieder tradition is rich, and a single lecture or course can't really do justice to it all.  Still, finding "ways in" to listening and appreciating music is always a topic of interest to me.

For most classical music listeners, going beyond the initial impressions of hearing a work for the first time, and gaining knowledge of the work's inner life and how it behaves, generally boosts one's appreciation of it.  This holds true with Lieder, especially when listeners are also hearing a song sung in a language not their own, or one that they don't easily grasp, even if singers are performing with superlative diction, and translations of the sung texts are available.

Lieder, and songs generally, are a marriage of poetry (or lyrics) and music. There is a body of scholarship devoted to the greater understanding of poetry (from high school, I remember adventures in John Ciardi's How Does a Poem Mean?), in which words are used to describe words conceived as poetry. As well there is scholarship devoted to using words to describe sound conceived as music -- the thrust of music textbooks and music criticism, among other things. Noted singers have written about German Lieder -- Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's analyses immediately come to mind -- and their experience as interpreters can hold inspiring insights, especially for readers intimately familiar with the songs.  And a good two-hour master class led by a distinguished Lieder singer can teach anyone -- from novice to professional -- how to grasp and extract meaning from Lieder. Examining in fine detail relationships between words and ideas, and the musical context of how they are conveyed to the listener, is a fundamental approach. So these are some ways to get closer to understanding how to listen to Lieder.

After pondering this point for some time, I've come to feel that  listening to Lieder is a variation (perhaps a complex and intricate variation, but still a variation) on how to listen to any song. Many singers, including leading opera stars, consider songs -- regardless of their genre or tradition -- as just "song," and distance themselves from the term "art song," preferring to focus on their similarities rather on their differences. This is not to diminish the importance of understanding different traditions and styles of song, and how challenging it can be to bring them most satisfyingly to life in performance.

Still, the singer and the singer's collaborators (in Lieder, most often a pianist) try to identify and recreate the essence of the song -- its spirit or soul, if you will. On the receiving end, listening to song, one simply tries to take in a succession of sounds that reach the ear over a period of time, and to make sense of what the creator(s) of the words and music may be intending to express, often on multiple levels, addressing both emotion and intellect, and tapping into knowledge, but also memory.

What sparked this blog post was hearing -- just recently, and for the very first time -- an early song by singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell, which utterly captivated me. Though I don't know all of her work and don't like equally that which I know, I'm nonetheless a fan of many songs that she has written, performed, and recorded across the various stylistic stages of her immensely creative and prolific life. She creates certain combinations of words and music that resonate deeply with me, and I listen to my favorites time and again. This experience was a vivid reminder that no matter how much music anyone knows, there's always more to be discovered -- and some of it can have an unexpected but welcome effect.

The song in question is from her 1969 album, Clouds, and it's the first track: "Tin Angel."  YouTube to the rescue -- you can listen to it here.  This album includes her original recording of "Both Sides, Now" that Judy Collins' cover made so popular. (I like both, but far prefer the original -- as well as her recent, imaginatively orchestrated remake.) Clouds is also for sale as a CD, and some older Joni Mitchell fans may still be be able to pull their LPs off the shelf or out of the basement. I'm somewhat astounded to realize that this album came out 46 years ago, but then again, Schubert Lieder still work their magic more than two centuries after he put pen to paper. Good songs stay with us.

Since discovering this song, I've been fairly obsessed by it -- partly because of its emotional effect on me, also because of its marvelous marriage of words and music to create and impart meaning in sound, in ways that can be described in words. That is, I have a strong sense of how this song "works" and why.

And, to my ears and way of thinking, how this happens in "Tin Angel" offers some instructive parallels (without the issue of any language barrier for English speakers) to understanding how many a Schubert Lied "works" and why-- about which I'll be writing more soon.

I'm not equating Franz Schubert and Joni Mitchell. Schubert's musical output was phenomenal, and he drew regularly on the work of many poets; Mitchell's songs, while fewer in number, are most often settings of her own poetry. There are nonetheless common aspects of their creativity as masters of song, in ways that we can appreciate as listeners.

In the meantime, if your interest is piqued, give several listens to "Tin Angel" when you can devote your entire, undivided, focused and deep concentration to it in a quiet setting, and take a look at the lyrics posted on Joni Mitchell's website.  I hope your time and attention will yield rewarding observations of how deliberate combinations of sounds through music and words serve expressive purposes in satisfying ways. There's art at work here. And if you can understand and appreciate why this is so, you can learn to understand and appreciate Lieder.


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