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A Very Quick Guide To... The Song Cycle

A sad man by a mill
A sad man by a mill

What’s it all about?

2023 marks the 200th anniversary of the composition of Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin, one of the greatest song cycles ever written and the work which established the genre as the go-to option for classical composers wanting to transform the humble song-with-piano into a major musical artform.

Why the name “song cycle”? Sounds like a musical bike . . .

Save the jokes for later please. Although admittedly the term is a bit random, and it’s often tricky to distinguish between “proper” song cycles (from the German, Liederkreis, or “song circle”) and simple song collections. Some song cycles, like Die Schöne Mullerin, have a definite narrative coherence, telling a story from beginning to end. Others are looser, comprising collections of songs linked only by a particular mood, or setting words by the same poet.

Give me an example

Well, let’s start right at the beginning, with Beethoven’s An die Ferne Geliebte (“To the Distant Beloved”), composed in 1816 and generally reckoned to be the first proper classical song cycle. What links the songs here isn’t a story but an overall mood of generalized yearning for a the “distant beloved” of the title – the first of many song cycles featuring nameless heroes in varying degrees of romantic distress, with plenty of sighing breezes and babbling brooks along the way.

So where does Schubert fit in?

Schubert’s first song-cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin (1823) takes Beethoven’s modest prototype and elevates it to epic proportions. With a running time of over an hour, this isn’t simply a bundle of loosely related songs but a compelling first-person psychodrama tracing the emotional collapse and death of a wanderering journeyman who falls hopelessly in love with a beautiful miller’s daughter (only to have the girl throw him over in favour of a dandy hunter in a Robin Hood-style green suit). Schubert’s music offers a masterful depiction of the hero’s gradual mental disintegration, from the jolly diatonicism of the opening verses through to the simple but searing lyricism of the final numbers.

It all sounds a bit dark . . .

It is, although nothing compared to Schubert’s later song cycle, Winterreise (for more on which, see here), written when the 30-year-old composer was dying of syphilis and probably the bleakest piece of classical music ever written.

Are all song cycles this glum?

Well, not all of them, but there was definitely something about the genre which encouraged composers to free themselves from the abstract complexities of the symphony and sonata and get in touch with their angsty emotional dark side. It’s certainly to the fore in the works of Schubert’s song-writing heir, Robert Schumann, whose gorgeous Dichterliebe (“A Poet’s Love”, 1840) continues the theme of romantic longing ("Many flowers spring up from my tears, and a nightingale choir from my sighs.” Etc etc.). Schumann’s other great cycle, Frauen-Liebe und Leben (“A Woman’s Life and Love”) changes things up in that’s it’s narrated from the woman’s point of view and strikes a more cheery and domestic note, although the man still dies at the end.

Hurrah! Equal rights for broken-hearted women!

Steady on. (And if you really think Schumann was striking a blow for gender equality check out singer Carolyn Sampson’s hilarious take-down of the work here).

Alright, so then what happened?

Not a lot, for a while a least. Skip forward fifty years to Hugo Wolf, generally reckoned the third and last in the great triumvirate of Austro-Germanic song-writers. Wolf’s myriad vocal works like the Spanisches Liederbuch and Eichendorff Lieder (although they’re more like song collections than proper cycles) offer a late-romantic take on the lyrical voice-and-piano tradition established by Schubert and Schumann, with further generous helpings of romantic misery along the way.

And that was it? They all lived unhappily ever after?

Not quite. The late nineteenth century saw the old song cycle for voice and piano given a major reboot and reborn as the orchestral song cycle thanks to the work of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, who wrote a string of magnificently original works starting with his early Songs of a Wayfarer – although the basic narrative remains quintessentially Schubertian. (Sweetheart marries another fellow. Heartbroken hero lies down under a tree and dies.)

The song cycle is dead! Long live the song cycle!

Indeed. Mahler also increasingly introduced singers (not to mention entire choirs) into his symphonies, following the model of Beethoven’s Ninth, culminating in Das Lied von der Erde, which is effectively an enormous song cycle subtitled “A Symphony for Tenor, Alto and Orchestra”.

So it’s a song cycle which is also a symphony?

Exactly – while Alexander Zemlinsky’s marvellous Lyric Symphony of 1923 does something very similar. Zemlinsky’s Six Maeterlinck Songs and Alban Berg’s beautiful Seven Early Songs offer further examples of the late-romantic orchestral song cycle in all its gorgeous technicolour glory (even if both were originally written for voice and piano), as does Richard Strauss’s nostalgic Four Last Songs of 1948 – a backward-looking masterpiece which effectively marks the end of the romantic song cycle tradition.

Interestingly, the song cycle tradition even survived the musical upheavals of the early 20th-century, reappearing in later 12-note works by Berg (Der Wein) and Anton Webern. And we should also probably mention Schonberg’s Book of the Hanging Gardens, not to mention the same composer’s maverick Pierrot Lunaire, for soprano and chamber ensemble, one of the seminal works of the 20th-century, although we’re maybe stretching a point by calling it a song cycle given that the singer doesn’t actually, well, sing.

Are there any song cycles in languages apart from German then?

Loads. France in particular boasts a rich song-cycle repertoire, from Berlioz’s Nuits d’été through to Fauré La Bonne Chanson and on to Debussy, Ravel and others, while there are also the three landmark song cycles by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, including the unforgettably spooky Songs and Dances of Death. Song cycles also continued to flourish well into the 20th century in the work of British composers such as Vaughan Williams and, especially, Benjamin Britten, whose composed numerous works in the genre (with both piano and chamber orchestra) from the exuberantly youthful Les Illuminations through to the wistful Winter Words.


Offical line

The song cycle: one of the music’s most intimate and emotionally charged genres.

Out of line

“Cheer up, Franz. She’s only a miller’s daughter, for goodness sake...”