The Human Voice

In the past, we’ve done series about different instruments (and another one is queued up), and I’ve spoken before about the difficulty of warming up to and appreciating opera the way I am currently used to listening to music, but I’m hoping perhaps to change that eventually. In any case, it’s time for a series on the human voice.

For long stretches of musical history, the human voice was the instrument. It’s certainly the cheapest option out there. No fancy aged wood, no frame, no metal strings or intricate mechanisms. None, of course, except for the amazing human body itself.

And there have been times, even after music was (almost) strictly religious, when opera and vocal music held sway as the primary form of music. And in this series, we’ll be taking a look at just a few of the most famous works for the human voice, but not in opera form.

The primary focus of the series is the Lied, or song, in German, plural Lieder, referring to a centuries-old form of setting German poetry to music. Since the term refers, or at least used to refer, specifically to German works, the term ‘art song’ is sometimes seen, but I think most music folks are familiar enough with the idea of Lieder that it should be fine. Also, when these individual songs come in collections, as in settings from the poetry of a single author or centered around a certain idea, it’s called a song cycle, and there are some very famous ones. We’ve actually discussed a (very) few of these, to my recollection only one from Schubert and a few of Mahler’s song cycles, which represent some of the smallest and yet in their own way most compelling works from the composer known for his musical enormity.

For us non-German (or other language-) speakers, these forms can seem a bit impenetrable. I mean, you’re literally enjoying poetry in another language. If you enjoy poetry in your own language, you’ll appreciate the nuance and shading and feeling of the text, the very specific choice of words to evoke an idea, an emotion, or imagery. So it can seem intimidating, sure, to be discussing or trying to learn about something that requires some degree of linguistic ability (or googling ability; most translations, especially of these very famous works, can be found online, as we shall see). Truth be told though, even without any knowledge of the text, the music itself is still enjoyable; it’s obviously far more enjoyable to know what’s being discussed, especially in larger-scale works with themes or narratives.

So yeah… song cycles. We’ll be starting only as far back as 1816, just over 200 years ago! For those of you familiar with this little corner of music, you might well know which piece that means we’ll begin by discussing, and if you saw Sunday’s string quartet post, you have another big hint. This series will take us right to the end of February, with a little epilogue (of sorts, maybe not) in the beginning of March. Weekends will still be chamber works from the featured composers, since some of these works are for voice and piano and rather chamber-y anyway.

This is something I’ve not really spent a ton of time with, but there is some beautiful music lined up, some smaller works prepared, as well as some truly monumental pieces and revelations, so do stay tuned.

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