La Scena Musicale

Friday, 3 July 2015

Next Great Art Song - Leslie De'Ath's Favourite Art Song

La Scena Musicale is celebrating the Art Song in 2015-16 with the launch of an worldwide survey, What is your favourite art song? Submit your vote at Here is our first submission, a thoughtful response from Prof. Leslie De'Ath. 

"With so vast a genre, and so many masterful songs to choose from, deciding on a top ten, let alone “the greatest” is a largely arbitrary process.  Here are my choices right now, proffered with the same reservations I have about any competitiveness within music.  A competition reveals its essence not by what it chooses, but by what it is obliged to exclude.  Ask me tomorrow, and the different result will reflect changes in me, not in the songs.

I find that the greatest songs–whatever that may mean–are ones in which the aesthetic ideals of the poet and of the composer appear to have meshed seamlessly and inevitably.  This happens remarkably seldom.  Mörike/Wolf, Hardy/Finzi, Verlaine/Debussy, Müller/Schubert, Cummings/Nordoff, and Des Knaben Wunderhorn/Mahler come immediately to mind.

I find choosing the greatest song cycle a far easier task - Winterreise stands head and shoulders above all others for me, and for many others.  (A close second might be Hermit Songs of Samuel Barber, the finest of American song cycles.)  Choosing one song out of Winterreise is much more difficult.  Der Leiermann sends chills down my spine every time.  I ended up with Der Wegweiser partly because it is a landmark song within the cycle.  After a number of songs of disorientation and psychological instability (Irrlicht, Der greise Kopf, Die Krähe, Im Dorfe andTäuschung), Der Wegweiser is a final, devastating jolt of lucidity.  The hapless protagonist only now fully comprehends that there is no going back.  He has finally reached the Pale, and we are but a stone’s throw from Der Leiermann.  In Der Wegweiser, the journey comes to a virtual end.  Melody and harmony have become incarcerated, and circle back upon themselves helplessly like a caged tiger in a zoo.  The repeated notes, torture-like, directly portend the demented, heart-wrenching monotony of the final song. The astonishing chromaticisms, done with masterful economy of means, delineate the poet’s icy anguish.  Never in the history of music has a composer been so technically and aesthetically assured as in this cycle, and in this song."

Faculty of Music
Wilfrid Laurier University
Waterloo, Ontario

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