Gay Lieder

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[This article appeared, under the title "The Lieder and Homoerotic Love", in the September-October 2006 issue of The Gay & Lesbian Review. It has been slightly revised here, with a number of mistakes corrected.]

Gay Lieder by John Lauritsen

Opera queens are not in short supply, but gay men who love Lieder seem to be few and far between. The German word Lied (plural Lieder) simply means “song”. But it has acquired a particular association, especially among English speakers: the Romantic German art song. Mozart and Beethoven may be considered the earliest composers of Lieder, though the genre only came into its own with Franz Schubert, followed by Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss, and others. The words in Lieder are as important as the music, and the piano contribution is as important as the vocal. The best Lieder represent a union of a great poet and a great composer. Ideally everything comes together — the story being narrated, the sound and imagery of the poetry, the vocal line, the character conveyed by the singer, and the piano accompaniment. The best Lieder singers, while not stiff, use gestures very sparingly, if at all. The words and music are sufficient. A Lieder recital is intimate, best heard in a small hall or in the home. This is very different from opera, where action and scenery are part of the experience. To fully appreciate an opera, one needs to see it — in an opera house, in a DVD movie (most of which are badly directed and photographed), or at least in one's imagination. There are a few Lieder in which male love plays a part. However, a disclaimer: there can be a gay response to Lieder that are ostensibly or even entirely heterosexual, as there can to many operas. For example, Schubert's great song cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin (the beautiful miller maid), is about an intense and naive young man who falls in love with a girl, woos her, wins her, loses her, and then commits suicide by drowning himself. It is almost unbearably beautiful and tragic. My response, and I imagine that of other gay men, is both to identify with the poor boy and to try to help him. “It's only a woman,” we want to tell him, but to no avail. In the end the brook sings a lullaby to the youth who is cradled in its depths. My favorite recording of Die Schöne Müllerin is by the Danish tenor, Aksel Schutz, accompanied by Gerald Moore — but there is also a fine 1961 performance by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, also accompanied by Gerald Moore. Both are currently available on CDs.

Franz Schubert

One of the greatest of all Lieder is Schubert's second setting of a poem by Goethe, An den Mond (To The Moon, D 296, composed in 1777 and published in 1789). At its heart, Goethe's poem is about romantic male friendship, a friendship which, though not overtly erotic, does not exclude sex. From at least the mid-18th century, “friend” has been a code word for the lover of another male, especially in Germany. When the homosexual rights movement began there in the late 19th century, periodicals sprang up with such titles as Der Freund and Freundschaft und Freiheit. The first known American gay periodical was the short-lived Friendship and Freedom, started by the German-American Henry Gerber in the mid-1920s. In the second stanza, the gentle eye of his friend watches over the narrator's fate. Below, my own translations follow the German.

An den Mond, later version, 2nd stanza:

Breitest über mein Gefild

Lindernd deinen Blick,

Wie des Freundes Auge mild

Über mein Geschick.


Over my domain you spread

Your soothing gaze,

Like the gentle eye of a friend

Upon my fate.

A fter an emotionally turbulent middle section, difficult to paraphrase, we come to the last two stanzas, which are unmistakably about male love, poignantly and mysteriously portrayed. To ordinary people (Menschen), this kind of love is unknown or something they don't wish to think about. The fortunate man is one who, in confidence and serenity, can exclude the world and enjoy the nocturnal companionship of his friend.

Ibid., last two stanzas:

Selig, wer sich vor der Welt

Ohne Haß verschließt,

Einen Freund am Busen hält

Und mit dem genießt,


Was, von Menschen nicht gewußt

Oder nicht bedacht,

Durch das Labyrinth der Brust

Wandelt in der Nacht.


Blessed is he, who free from hate

Shuts out the world,

To his bosom holds a friend

And with him enjoys,


That which, by common folk not known

Or not thought about,

Through the labyrinth of the breast

Wanders in the night.


In an earlier version of An den Mond, homoeroticism is more overt. Here it is explicitly a man clasped to another man's bosom; now ordinary people may even despise the love that two men share. Following are the final two stanzas, followed by my own translation:

An Den Mond (Earlier version)


Selig, wer sich vor der Welt

Ohne Haß verschließt,

Einen Mann am Busen hält

Und mit dem genießt,


Was dem Menschen unbewußt

Oder wohl veracht

Durch das Labyrinth der Brust

Wandelt in der Nacht.


Blessed is he, who free from hate

Shuts out the world,

To his bosom holds a man

And with him enjoys,

That which, by common folk unknown

Or even despised,

Through the labyrinth of the breast

Wanders in the night.


There are not many recordings of this Lied, perhaps because male singers find the homoeroticism embarrassing. I heard it for the first time over twenty years ago, in a recording by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, accompanied by Gerald Moore at the piano (Deutsche Grammophon LP 2530 229). Tears streamed down my face, as he sang the final two stanzas. Later I acquired another recording (Deutsche Grammophon CD 457 747-2), in which Fischer-Dieskau was accompanied by his close friend, the Austrian pianist Jörg Demus.

Recently I got still another recording of the Schubert Goethe-Lieder (London CD 452 917-2), this one by the young baritone, Matthias Goerne, accompanied by Andreas Haefliger. If I thought I had already expended my emotions over this Lied, I was wrong. Goerne, who was a student of Fischer-Dieskau, sang it very slowly, with the final two stanzas in a piano to pianissimo range, almost as though it were a prayer. His voice is very beautiful; his pianissimo and his breath control are unrivalled by any singer I have ever heard.

Robert Schumann

A very different Lied is Der Soldat (the soldier), composed by Robert Schumann in 1840 (opus 40, number 3) from a poem by Hans Christian Andersen, which was freely translated from Danish into German by the poet Adelbert von Chamisso (1781-1838). The poem is stark, tragic, and unambiguously about love between two soldiers.

My translation below may seem a bit strange in its metrics, but I did it to conform to Schumann's music. With minor changes to a few note values, my translation can be sung to his music. Almost fortuitously I ended up with partial rhymes in the a b a b pattern. (Chamisso's translation has full rhymes in the a a b b pattern.)

The Soldier

It's done to the sound of muffled drums;

How far yet the place! How long the way!

Oh, were he at rest and all were done!

I feel my heart will break.


I have in the world loved only him,

Loved him, who now to his death is led.

With martial band they'll parade him,

For this I also am commandeered.


Now gazes he for the final time

On the joyous light of the sun in heaven,

Now they blindfold his eyes —

May God grant you eternal rest.


And now nine men have taken aim;

Eight bullets go wide of the mark.

They all were shaking from anguish and pain —

But I ... I hit ... I hit him right in the heart.


We can only surmise why the soldier is being executed. The sympathy of the men in the firing squad suggest that his offense was nothing shameful. In the 1830s, when Andersen wrote his poem, the death penalty for sex between males was still on the books in Denmark, but in practice no one for decades had been executed for any crime except murder. (This is in sharp contrast to England, where gay men were still regularly being hanged up to 1834.)

The Lied is in a march tempo marked “nicht zu langsam” (not too slow). The piano accompaniment simulates the muffled drums of the first line, and then in two interludes, provides a harsh and even brutal statement of its own.

Der Soldat is not often sung or recorded; even a Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recording of 61 Schumann Lieder does not include it. The two CD recordings I did find are both excellent, though quite different. One is by Thomas Hampson, accompanied by Geoffrey Parsons (Robert Schumann Lieder, Teldec 2292-44935-2). His rendering is virile, declamatory and somewhat operatic. The soldier's heart may be breaking, but there is no doubt that he is disciplined and doing his duty. He projects anger, pride, bitterness, defiance. When Hampson sings, “Ich hab' in der Welt nur ihn geliebt, nur ihn, dem jetzt man den Tod doch giebt” (“I have in the world loved only him, only him, who is now being put to death”) he does so forte, with a defiant pride and no apologies for his love. When he describes the shaking of the other men on the firing squad, it is with contempt — they are weaklings, whereas he himself has the guts to terminate the suffering of his lover. Only in the last line, when the phrase breaks — and Schumann repeats some of the words — does the soldier lose control of his emotions.

Another CD is by Matthias Goerne, accompanied by Eric Schneider (Schumann Lieder, Decca 475-6012). Goerne is also a soldier, but a more sensitive and vulnerable one. The heartbreak is felt throughout the song, rather than mostly in the final line. I especially recommend this CD, as it includes a fine selection of Schumann Lieder, some very familiar, but others relatively unknown.

Last April Matthias Goerne gave a recital at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, in which he sang two song cycles that are always sung by women: Schumann's Frauenliebe und Leben (Woman's Love and Life) and Wagner's Wesendonck Songs. No one seems to object when female singers interpret songs that tell a story from a man's viewpoint. But sauce for the goose isn't sauce for the gander, at least for some of the male London critics, who found all sorts of things to quibble about: Goerne's voice was too low, his interpretations were too bland, he was “making a statement”, it was the “Brokeback Mountain dimension”, and so on. Goerne's former teacher, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, denounced the project in advance as “ridiculous, stupid and wrong”. On the other hand, Melanie Eskenazi, who considers Goerne the greatest Lieder singer who is still performing, loved it, and concluded by saying, “A tremendous recital: none of these works will ever sound the same again.”

Last year was the bicentennial of the birth of Hans Christian Andersen, who in Europe and Scandinavia is regarded as a major figure in the Romantic Movement — an important novelist, dramatist and poet, as well as the author of fairy tales. The centennial was marked by an exceptionally fine biography by Jens Andersen (Hans Christian Andersen: a new life, Overlook Duckworth 2005), brilliantly translated from the Danish by Tina Nunnally. Although Andersen was sufficiently discreet that the specific details of his sex life are unknown, there is no doubt that he was gay — consciously and openly. In fact, this was known to the German gay movement over a hundred years ago. Tina Nunnally also has done splendid new translations of thirty of Andersen's greatest stories (Hans Christian Andersen, Fairy Tales, Viking 2005), which are by no means written only for children.

In 1844 Andersen travelled to Leipzig, where he visited Robert and Clara Schumann, who held a home recital of the five Andersen poems that Schumann had put to music in 1840. Not only were poet and composer present, but the singer, Livia von Frege, was accompanied by Clara Schumann, the greatest woman pianist of the 19th century. One can only imagine what the two ladies made of Der Soldat.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Homoerotic elements can be found in other Lieder poems by Goethe, who once said that he considered his poems incomplete until they had been set to music. One of them, Ganymed, is about the abduction of a beautiful youth by Zeus, father of the gods. It is a highly mystical and ambiguous poem, in which creator and creation, lover and beloved, seem to merge together. The setting by Schubert is lovely, but the one by Hugo Wolf (composed 21 October 1889) far surpasses it for drama and eroticism. The performance of this Lied by the famous Irish tenor, John McCormack, was considered one of his finest. Not everyone cares for the quality of McCormack's voice, which is perhaps more suitable for the songs of Thomas Moore or Stephen Foster, but his total conviction and superb enunciation carry the day.

The poem for one lovely Lied, Morgen (morning) — set to music by Richard Strauss in 1893-94 — was written by John Henry Mackay, who was an important writer in the early homosexual rights movement. In the early years of the 20th century Mackay published, under the pen name Sagitta, a series of polemics on behalf of what he called “nameless love”. These were suppressed by the authorities in 1909, but then issued clandestinely by him in 1913. In 1924 he published a novel, Der Puppenjunge (The Hustler), which vividly describes the hustling scene in Berlin of the 1920s. There are old but very beautiful performances of Morgen by the soprano Elisabeth Schumann and by the tenor Leo Slezak.

RECORDINGS: For an introduction to Lieder in general, I would recommend recordings of Die Schöne Müllerin by Aksel Schutz or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1961) — recordings of Die Winterreise (The Winter Journey) by Gerhard Hüsch, Hans Hotter, or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1961) — the Goethe-Lieder recordings by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau or Matthias Goerne — the Schumann Lieder recording by Matthias Goerne — any of Elisabeth Schumann's recordings of Lieder by Schubert, Brahms, Wolf, or Strauss.


John Lauritsen is author of A Freethinker's Primer of Male Love (1998); editor of Plato: The Banquet, translated by Percy Bysshe Shelley (2001); and co-author of The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864-1935) (1974/ Revised Second Edition 1995). He can be contacted at: john_lauritsen@post.harvard.edu

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