The Grief over the Lied

Grief over the lied – this in itself is not a bad thing.  Or at least, it does not harm the lied, which has always been an outlet for grief.

The bad thing is that almost nobody cares about the lied anymore.

Why?  Well – Maybe because almost nobody has an interest in dealing with grief anymore.  But why, then, does it seem like ninety-nine percent of the so-called popular music consists of song-like music, and why does somebody like Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner (Sting) time and again sing, at the highest poetic and compositional level and as unabashedly as economically viable, about – among other things – grief?

What are we doing wrong?  Schubert’s lieder are not lower in quality, after all …

Why has the tradition of lied performance come so dangerously close to the verge of extinction?

It doesn’t really matter.  Insights into the causes will hardly undo their effects.

So, let’s do something for the lied, for its recovery, and for its re-invention as a lively heritage of sounding narration of things that could never be narrated with words alone.

For a change, let’s think of the song not as something from the past, but as something that has a future; not in terms of “hardly anymore,” but in terms of “not yet.”

It may be hard to imagine, but it is possible.  At least, under some premises.

The first premise is that of artistic authenticity.

Singers should not try to make us believe that they experience and feel Gretchen’s grim delight or the miller apprentice’s painful inability to impress his sweetheart while secretly thinking, “Here, I have to color it darker,” or “Here, some facial expression would help.”

We will notice.  Even if the intellect can be deceived, the soul can tell rather well the difference between hoax and realness.

Fabricated feelings are of no interest in the long run.

Piano accompanists shall be visible and audible on equal terms because they are doing the same job: carrying sounding words towards a thinking heart.  By the way, they will be held accountable to their responsibility or their irresponsibility towards the composer to a lesser extent than for having born witness of the existence of a spiritual world in a staunchly materialistic era.  

Thus, their admiring devotion shall be focused on the spirit that brought a piece into existence, rather than on composers, who themselves are only a medium.  They may, for Heaven’s sake, feel obliged to convey a piece authentically, but even more so, they should feel obliged to convey its spirit.

They shall not be puppets, enslaved by the written score, but they shall serve the imagination and the spirit, not the letter – full of confidence and with their heads held high.  They are not supposed to execute the notes, but they need to wake up the song that slumbers in all things, including piano scores.

Impeccability as a mass product is able to bluff, but unable to excite.  Listeners’ admiration for the smoothness of a surface has waned.  They have ceased to view pretense – even if well-done – as art.  They have become weary of comparing judgments and the sarcastic distance to which such judgment leads.  They no longer want to perceive themselves as standing above things.  Going forward, they would prefer to sincerely regret if they walk out after a concert without having found a new incentive to change their lives.  Right?

Whatever artists on stage say or sing, they must have reflected it in their heart and felt it with sympathy so that they can present us the weighty message with ease and serenity.  It is then ours to cry over the fact that we are not like them.

But then again – we are not really that different.

After all, we all are searching for a new ‘Why.’  

Also, if there is anything to cry about, it is our lack of activity, not our lack of ability. 

Even as children, we were able to do more than we were allowed to do.  “Why should we live in a world that is already completed?” we would have asked or did ask.  We had come into the world in order to shape it.  We call it “talent,” and we are used to comfortably ascribing talent to others.  We seem to think that doing so can discharge us from our own duty.  But it is us, all of us, who have talents, and who have a duty.  None of us is without a mission, and nobody without a responsibility.  What is holding us back?  Why do we resign ourselves?  Why aren’t we drawing our conclusions from the findings of modern physics, which says that reality is partly generated by the human consciousness?  

Why have we been discussing for decades Beuys’ saying, “Every human being is an artist!” rather than just living according to it?  Every human being is a composer!

Alas, those of us who are concerned about life after death for the lied shall strive for creative latitude, bring about relatedness, create connection, compose – our capabilities exceed what we have been permitting ourselves.

The first steps have been accomplished.

For example, the days when lied recitals resembled sounding work catalogues seem to be gone.  With increasing frequency, the programs of lied recitals are linked to a theme so that individual lieder are connected to each other by lyrics, general mood, or in other ways.  The word has also gotten around that a lied by Schumann flourishes in the right context, but that it languishes if it is only presented because the previous song was also by Schumann.  Which is not to say that a lied by Schumann cannot create a befitting context for another lied by Schumann.

As is true in many cases, the less-famous colleagues and independent agents are the ones who set the best examples with programmatic innovation, and whose ideas start creating revenue once they have been usurped by the established music industry.  This brings up the question whether, in our accelerated era, we should allow ourselves to arrogantly ignore new developments only because they are initially not commercially viable.  Had Franz Schubert spent his short life during the past century, his soft-spoken opus would have been drowned out, and he would have been forgotten.


We shall compose!  I say “we,“ and I know why.  It is our “collective musical will of the people,” to cite Michael Glinka, which is bundled into works by composers.  Without it, these works cannot come into being.  We are the people.  It is our shared musical will that counts.  A people without songs, however, has to face the painful realization that it lacks qualification.  (Besides, it is facing one of the causes the effects of which can no longer be changed: The German folk song was poisoned.)

So much the more it is true that there is no such thing as “too much singing” – whether inherited songs, or newly-minted ones.  Furthermore, there are far fewer contemporary (lied) compositions that the audience wants to hear more than once, compared to traditional works.  Hence, there should be a demand.

Yet, there is no demand.  Audiences avoid concerts with new music as if they were seeking in order not to find.  Or as if they were looking for something entirely different – more about this later.

Having no choice, composers put their work out like a letter in a bottle, with unknown addressees.  To whom should they devote their music?  (Who, besides me, may be interested in what I do?  An anxious question that we all are familiar with.)

The uncertainty about potential audiences constitutes a significant reason why composing has become such a “devilishly” (Thomas Mann) difficult task, in spite of unlimited permission and despite of choices which are probably broader than they have ever been in human history.  Because anything goes, nothing goes.  It is simply impossible to find the music of an empathic future civilization by re-flecting.  How could this be, anyway?  Something that is valid and capable of building an integrative community cannot come from the past; it has hardly been invented.  The process of finding music follows rules other than those we are imposing on it.  The materialistic, cause-effect-oriented logic of accrual is inappropriate for the correspondence with the invisible; we have configured ourselves poorly.  We are still too infrequently attuned to receiving. 

But how can we as a people, and as a globally developing community, detect the connection between word and sound out of our own creative initiative?  

How should we acquire in order to own?  How do we purposely and consciously travel into the blissful vagueness of ignorance, and whom may we ask, naively and from a pure heart, “How is music generated?”  For we no longer know it, not yet.  Yes, back then.  Back then, it was silent.  From that silence, a longing may have arisen to hearken to the sound and the meaning of a word in order to unveil music and to play it in between dreaming and wakening.  Where is this still possible?  When will it be possible again?

Where can we find the silence in and around us?  Where can we find benign indulgence and forgiveness for what is initially imperfect, and where can we find life conditions that nurture the delicate little plant of an idea?

In partnership, of course.

Also, in improvisation as an entirely anarchic exercise of music.  Here, the idea is in charge – who else could?  There can be no other leader besides the idea.  Serving the idea, all collaborators are equal as combiners, as composers.

In improvization, music presents itself as a sounding picture of Harmonia Mundi, as a cooperation of manifestations of spirit in fluctuating hierarchy, as a sounding whole, as a social art, and as the most conciliatory of all arts.

Improvized music is the purest permission: to invent what already exists, to dissolve form and playfully reorganize it, and to discover rules rather than setting them, so that they become immanent in each word and in each musical progression.

There are only two rules to improvized music: the requirement to listen, and the prohibition of judgment.  From the countless experimental arrangements that are possible, I shall name only one: stretch a round (“Three Blind Mice,” “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” whatever) into infinite slowness, then listen carefully to each voice in its own flow of time and its activity to detect the abundance of subtonics which are striving to be resolved, thereby generating the room for creativity in which imagination can become real and alive.

Improvization is meditation and presence of the mind in the “here” and “now,” in between “not yet” and “never again,” art without an opus, and certainly music which one could never have come up with alone.  It is inclusive in an unparalleled way, it is sounding participation: In the face of improvized music, nobody can be audience.  All living beings within earshot are becoming contributors, whether in a practicing or in an interfering function, or as an intentional listener.

Improvization is a key to the traditional work; a lied by Schubert which has been recreated in a pioneering way and mindfully of the rules of art via inventive exploration cannot easily die a death by disenchantment.  

Having said that, extempore music has not yet been recognized yet as a fountain of youth for musical performance practice and as a potential community builder.  Its essence, which is characterized by the freedom of being, is still falling victim to the noise of competition and the ubiquitous pressure of having to outdo others.  

As a consequence, I wish for us, the professional musicians and contributing amateurs who were alike raised to betray our own creativity, to have the courage and the tenacity to initiate an experiment that shall initially last for, say, 500 years, in which we intone now, in a preparatory and heralding manner, the song of a civilization yet to come.  Also, I urge all multipliers, concert promoters and providers of concert programs to observe the avant-garde of futuristic music closely and to move along with it in a constructive manner. 

Remember: “The future is a grand fugue where the various peoples take turns in their songs.”  Florestan alias Robert Schumann knew it, even back in his day. 

There are many indications that the music of the future will be the vocal (art) product of collaboration.  Everybody can sing; humans have a voice.  The collective willpower to create a song may have been superimposed, drowned out, buried – but it never died.  Events like the recent Day of Song, in which thousands of professionals and amateurs from all over the Ruhr area participated, evoke - against the common trend – excitement.

Finally, in a world where singing will no longer be uncool, but completely natural, we do not have to worry about the appreciation for and continuance of the lied.  Then, grief will also have a home in the future.



Michael Gees 


(English translation by Georg Hirsch)









Mariam Tonoyan
Danke, ich habe deinen Text mit Begeisterung gelesen!
Claudia Sucur
Als ich Deinen Text zum ersten Mal gelesen habe, war es so als ob ein Teil von mir mitgesungen hat. Ich lese ihn gerade immer und immer wieder. Bis bald bei den Zukunftsmusikern,  Claudia
Du beschreibst es mit Musik, ich mit Politik - die Emanzipation der Menschen. Lebt und probiert Euch aus, werdet erwachsen und Gestalter. Alles ist in Bewegung und wir machen mit. @Claudia: Ich freu mich auf Dich! ;-)
Vielen Dank für deinen Weckruf! Es ist Zeit frei zu werden! Wunderbarer Inhalt trefflich formuliert!
Danke, passt zu Vielem was mich in unserer klassischen Musikszene stutzig macht....!? Es lebe der Freigest!
Ich singe sehr gerne und mit allergrößtem Vergnügen! Was mich schon lange bekümmert: Unsere Lieder, die, die wir kennen, verschwinden im endlosen Strom, der neuen Liedproduktionen. Wie der Zauberlehrling das wallende Wasser nicht mehr stoppen kann, stehen wir ratlos angesichts dieser Liedermassen. Spontan gemeinsam singen können wir Lieder, aus Zeiten, in denen noch gesungen und nicht nur unentwegt neu produziert wurde. Was mir bleibt? Die beglückende Freiheit zu singen und ab und an Michaels Improvisationen zu lauschen.
Dieter Grundmann
Eine bachelor-Arbeit, dieser Text. Die Wiederentdeckung des deutschen narrativen Liedes ist zögerlich. Wurde vergiftet durch Instrumentalisierung in der NS-Zeit.That`s the grief over the Lied in our country.
Lieber Michael Lass uns, die wir singen, spielen, malen, zeichnen, schreiben," im Traume weinen","aus alten Märchen "schöpfen, die" alten ,bösen Lieder " begraben, mit diesen wohl auch die " Liebe und den Schmerz ", um alles wieder neu entdecken zu können. Dies, um wieder, gemeinsam weinen, singen und weiterträumen zu dürfen. Du hast einen wichtigen Anfang gemacht . Ich danke Dir sehr dafür . Auf das neue Lied ! Herzlichst Gotthard
Der Wille zum Gesang, "vergangen ist er nicht", genau, und es liegt auch an denen, die das Lied, den Gesang, das Leid, die Freude und die Stimme den neuen Menschen bewusst machen, den Kindern, die selber so schön klingen, wenn man ihnen dazu Gelegenheit und ?bung gibt. Und dann blüht es auf, und das hei?t dann Mensch, oder Lied. Und dann kann es sein, dass die Hochkultur, nennen wir sie mal so, ohne ?berheblichkeit, die Elementarerziehung trifft. Ist doch ganz schön, oder? "Vergiss mein nicht!" ist das Programm, was mir zuweilen dabei hilft.
Wir brauchen alle Mut und die Bereitschaft der Singenden, den Wollenden, die Hand zu reichen und ihnen Mut zu machen. Den Veranstaltern Wagemut und den Zuhörern Mut Neues zu hören, hören zu wollen.
Lieber Herr Gees, Vielen Dank für Ihren Text zum Leid und Lied. Wunderschön finde ich vor allem, dass der Inhalt Ihres Thema's auch sprachlich zum Ausdruck zu kommen scheint. Die Poesie Ihrer Sprache scheint mir einer Art aufmerksam-abwartendes Lauschens zu entspringen, vergleichbar mit dem, wofür Sie in der Musik plädieren. So wird der Text ein Exemplum von was Sie sagen wollen. Wenigstens ist das, wie ich es gelesen habe. Herzlich, Bas van Bommel
Lieber Michael, vielen Dank für diesen außerordentlich wunderbaren Text. Hab ich sehr gerne und mit viel Zustimmung gelesen und ich freu mich schon wieder, mal mit Dir zusammen zu sitzen und zu reden. LG!julia
Dear Michael, I had the pleasure to have an interview with you some time ago, in Amsterdam when you were performing together with Christoph Prégardien in a 'Lied' program. One of the things we discussed was the Erik Satie CD. The combination of craftmanship and recreation delivers the kind of art to cherish and to treasure. Thank you, Michael!
Die Sänger der Vorwelt (F. Schiller) "Sagt, wo sind die Vortreflichen hin, wo find` ich die Sänger, Die mit dem lebenden Wort horchende Völker entzückt, Die vom Himmel den Gott, zum Himmel den Menschen gesungen, Und getragen den Geist hoch auf den Flügeln des Lieds? Ach, noch leben die Sänger, nur fehlen die Thaten, die Lyra Freudig zu wecken, es fehlt ach! ein empfangendes Ohr. Glückliche Dichter der glücklichen Welt! Von Munde zu Munde Flog, von Geschlecht zu Geschlecht euer empfundenes Wort. Wie man die Götter empfängt, so begrü?te jeder mit Andacht, Was der Genius ihm redend und bildend, erschuf. An der Glut des Gesangs entflammten des Hörers Gefühle, An des Hörers Gefühl nährte der Sänger die Glut. Nährt`und reinigte sie! Der Glückliche, dem in des Volkes Stimme noch hell zurück tönte die Seele des Lieds. Dem noch von au?en erschien, im Leben, die himmlische Gottheit, Die der Neuere kaum, kaum noch im Herzen vernimmt." Dem Herrn Schiller scheint es auch nicht so anders ergangen zu sein und das noch vor den wundervollen Kompositionen eines Schuberts. Wie herrlich mu? dieser von Schiller beschriebene Gesang gewesen sein, der uns unwiederbringlich entschwunden. - Singen ist heildend, das erfahre ich selbst und am besten wirken die alten Volkslieder.- So la?t uns den Gesang - ein jeder dort wo er lebt - pflegen, damit wir nicht wie unser Schiller klagen müssen und am Ende trauern.

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