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Books

The Cambridge Companion to the Lied
19 Apr 2005

The Cambridge Companion to the Lied

Books described as a "Companion" to this or that and published by university presses should be required to come with a Reader Beware label. As is the case with many books put out by university and many for-profit publishers, the main reason for publishing these is to advance the tenure and promotion prospects of the authors. This is not a bad thing, except that all too often the books aren't very good.

The Cambridge Companion to the Lied

Edited by James Parsons
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 369 pp.

ISBN 0 521 80471 X (paperback)

 

The publisher knows they won't sell many copies, but university presses in particular are charged with promoting scholarship, and so corners are cut all around, starting with the quality of the scholarship. Often a senior (or more academically secure) figure in a field will recruit fellow academics, often young scholars just beginning their careers, to write chapters. On other occasions someone will organize a conference around a given composer or subject, and the papers given at the conference form the basis of the book. In both cases, consistency and quality frequently are jeopardized. Unless the editor is very conscientious, many of these books make little attempt to adopt a consistent approach throughout, so the reader is confronted with, at best, a mishmash of critical approaches. And getting academics to cooperate and submit their chapters on time is like herding cats, so the chapters may be several years (or more) old.

Fortunately for readers of the Cambridge Companion to the Lied, the editor, James Parsons of Southwest Missouri State University, has been conscientious in his duties, and the cats have been well behaved. The topics here aren't limited to the usual Big Five: Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Strauss. Two chapters on the eighteenth-century Lied explore works by C. P. E. Bach, Haydn, and Mozart and their predecessors. Among the chapters on the nineteenth-century Lied, one is devoted to the song cycle, and another to instrumental adaptations of Lieder, such as Liszt's versions of Schubert's songs and Mahler's reworkings of his Wunderhorn songs for his symphonies. Sections of the chapter on the Lied at mid-century discuss the songs of Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. The final chapter is a superb discussion of issues in the interpretation of the Lied by accompanist Graham Johnson.

One of the most valuable chapters is Rena Charlin Mueller's discussion of the songs of Franz Liszt. Most of the time, when "Liszt" and "song" are mentioned, we think of his Schubert arrangements or "Oh! quand je dors;" but Mueller shows the importance that Liszt gave to his composition of Lieder and how they reflect his artistic development as much as his piano music or symphonic works.

As is the case in most companions, the authors take various approaches to their subjects, but readers will gain new insights about their favorite composers and songs and encounter some new works to explore via CD or the piano. (One can only hope that people are still exploring new music — or music new to them — on the family upright.) Some authors, like the superb Susan Youens on Hugo Wolf, take a chronological approach. Heather Platt uses published reminiscences by Brahms's only composition student, Gustav Jenner, as the scaffolding for her chapter on his songs. Jürgen Thym devotes some of his discussion of Schumann's songs to key relationships in the song cycles like Dichterliebe. Johnson, in his summing up, also addresses this issue, but from the point of view of practicality: the composer may have woven a most ingenious or subtle network of tonal relationships, but if a singer has difficulty singing all the songs in a set or cycle in the original keys (or transposed), what's more important — keeping the key relationships or interpreting the song?

Quibbles about this volume are few. The chapter on Schubert seems more like a review article, but how can you adequately discuss this most important of all composers of the Lied in a few pages? Enough has been written about Carl Loewe's setting of Goethe's Erlkönig in relation to Schubert's that musical examples comparing their openings are the last thing we need in the all too short section on Loewe. Parson's chapter on the Lied in the twentieth century chooses examples selectively, as well he must, but his very brief section on Othmar Schoeck hardly gives justice to this very important Swiss composer of the Lied. On the plus side, readers won't be frightened off by complicated musical analyses — there's not a Schenker graph to be seen — and academic jargon is kept to a minimum. All in all, lovers of the Lied will find this a valuable addition to their collections and a model of how a "Companion" volume should look.

David Anderson

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