Of far greater importance is the work of Robert Schumann, I whose polyphonic methods of technique and peculiarly epigrammatic style enabled him to treat complex phases of thought and feeling which had hardly become prominent in Schubert’s time with quite extraordinary success. Both by temperament and by choice he is identified with the so-called romantic movement, a movement in which both poetry and music have tended more and more to become rather a personal revelation than “a criticism of life.” Thus with Schubert the note of universality, the abiding mark of the classical composers, is stronger than the impress of his own personality. With Schumann the reverse is the case. If the romantic movement gave a new impetus of vast importance both to music and literature, yet it had its weaker side in extremes of sensibility, which were not always equivalent to strength of feeling. Mendelssohn’s songs admittedly err on the side of pure sentimentality—Schumann, with Liszt, Jensen and Franz, frequently betrays the same weakness, but his best work, his settings to Heine (especially the Dichterliebe) , the Eichendorff “Liederkreis,” Chamisso’s “Frauenliebe u. Leben” (with some reservations), besides a fair number of other songs, such as “Widmung,” “Der Nussbaum,” “Ihre Stimme,” and his one completely successful ballad, “Die beiden Grenadiere,” are strong in feeling and full of poetic and imaginary qualities of the very highest order. The new poetry called for new methods of treatment. These Schumann, instinctively an experimenter, provided, first, by a closer attention to the minutiae of declamation than had hitherto been attempted—and herein syncopation and suspension furnished possibilities unsuspected even by Schubert—secondly by increasing the role of the pianoforte accompaniment—and in this he was helped on the one hand by novel methods of technique, of which himself and Chopin were the chief originators, and on the other by his loving study of Bach, which imparted a polyphonic treatment, quite new to song. In nearly all Schubert’s songs, and in quite all of Mendelssohn’s, the melody allotted to the voice maintained its position of supremacy. In Schumann it not infrequently becomes the secondary factor, the main r61e of lyric interpreter passing to the accompaniment, as in “Es ist ein Flöten u. Geigen” or “Röselein.” He also gave quite a new prominence to the opening and closing instrumental symphonies, which become in his hands no merely formal introduction or conclusion but an integral part of the whole conception and fabric of the Lied. This may be illustrated by many numbers of the Dichterliebe, but most remarkable is the final page, in which the pianoforte, after the voice has stopped, sums up the whole tenour of the cycle. This feature has been seized upon by many subsequent composers, but by few with Schumann’s rare insight and judgment. In Franz, for instance, the concluding symphony is often introduced without necessity, and becomes a mere irritating mannerism. In Brahms however it is developed, both at the opening and close of many songs, to an importance and pregnancy of meaning which no other composer has attained.
A third point in Schumann’s method is his fondness for short interrupted phrases (often repeated at different levels) in place of the developed Schubertian melodies; it is alluded to here because of the great extension of the practice by later composers, too often, as in the case of Franz, without Schumann’s tact. On many grounds, then, Schumann may be regarded as having widely extended the conception of the Lied; his example has encouraged later composers to regard no lyric poetry as too subtle for musical treatment. Unfortunately in presenting complexity of mood Schumann was not invariably careful to preserve structural solidity. Many later composers have followed the occasional looseness of design which is his fault, without approaching the beauty of spirit, in which he stands alone.
A bold experimenter in song was Franz Liszt, whose wayward genius, with its irrepressible bent towards the theatrical and melodramatic, was never at home within the limits of a short lyric. It is true that there is sincerity of feeling, if not of the deepest kind, in “Es muss ein Wunderbares sein” and “Uber alien Gipfeln”; but concentrated emotion, which involves for its expression highly organized form, was alien to Liszt’s genius, which is more truly represented in songs like “Die Lorelei,” “Kennst du das Land,” “Am Rhein”—in which are presented a series of pictures loosely connected, giving the impression of clever extemporizations on paper. It is not sufficiently recognized that such work is far easier to produce than a successful strophic song, even of the simplest kind, because the composer ignores the fact that a formal lyric implies formal music, and that the most formal poetry is often the most emotional. Critics, who measure the advance of song by the increase in number of those that are durchcomponirt, and the decreasing output of those which have the same music to each stanza, are in danger of forgetting the best qualities both of music and of poetry. Formless music never interpreted a finely formed poem, and unless the durchcomponirtes Lied has more form instead of less than the strophic song, it is artistically valueless. The popularity therefore of “Die Lorelei” is not so much a tribute to Liszt’s genius as an example of the extent to which gifted singers and undiscerning critics can mislead the public. Mere scene painting, however vivid, however atmospheric—and these qualities may be conceded to Liszt and to others who have followed his example—takes its place upon the lower planes of art.
The admiration expressed by Liszt and Wagner for the songs of Robert Franz, and the cordial welcome extended by Schumann to those which first made their appearance, have led to an undue estimate of their importance in many quarters. They are characterized by extreme delicacy both of feeling and of workmanship, but the ingenuity of his counterpoint, which he owed to his intimate knowledge of Bach and Handel, cannot conceal the frequent poverty of inspiration in his melodic phrases nor the absence of genuine constructive power. To build a song upon one or two phrases repeated at different levels and coloured by changing harmonies to suit the requirements of the poetic text (as in “Fur Musik” and “Du bist elend”) is a dangerous substitute for the power to formulate large and expressive melodies. But it is the method which Franz instinctively preferred and elaborated with skill. His songs are mostly very short and in the strophic form, some alteration being nearly always reserved to give point to the last verse. His tricks of style and procedure so quickly become familiar as to exhaust the patience even of the most sympathetic student. But the sincerity of his aims, the idealistic and supersensitive purity of his mind (which banished as far as possible even the dramatic element from his lyrics), its receptiveness to the beauties of nature and all that is chaste, tender and refined in human character render his songs an important contribution to our knowledge of the intimate side of German feeling, and compensate in some degree for the lack of the larger qualities of style and imagination. All his best qualities are represented in the beautiful setting of Lenau’s “Stille Sicherheit.” Those who care to study his limitations may compare his settings of Heine’s lyrics with the masterpieces of Schumann in the same field, or the dulness of his “Verborgenheit” (Mörike) with the romantic fervour imparted to that poem by the later genius of Hugo Wolf.
A higher value than is usually conceded attaches to the songs of Peter Cornelius, a friend of Liszt and Wagner, but a follower of neither. Before he came under their influence he had undergone a severe course of contrapuntal training, so that his work, though essentially modern in spirit, has that stability of structure which makes for permanence. He was, moreover, an accomplished linguist, a brilliant essayist, and a poet. That perfect fusion between poetry and music, which since Schubert has increasingly been the ideal of German song, is realized in an exceptional manner when, with Cornelius as with Wagner, librettist and musician are one person. More exquisite declamation is hardly to be found in the whole range of song than in the subtly imaginative “Auftrag,” whilst for nobility of feeling, apart from technical excellencies of the highest order, the “Weihnachtslieder,” the “Brautlieder” and much of the sacred cycle “Vater Unser,” are hardly surpassed even by Schumann