At the start of this beautifully produced and problematical book, Ian Bostridge asks in the foreword: "What is the lied?" The short answer, according to this exemplary performer of it, is that it is the German word for a song that tends to set literary texts, some of which already "were half-conceived to be sung", such as Wilhelm Müller's in Franz Schubert's Die Winterreise .
More than a thousand of these texts are presented in tasteful (if rather unadventurous) translations by the book's editor, Richard Stokes. The authors include Brecht, Burns, Goethe, Heinrich Heine, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Friedrich Hölderlin and Shakespeare, as well as lesser lights such as Friedrich Leopold Graf zu Stolberg-Stolberg and Schubert himself.
Schubert's entry as a poet (replete with dates) inside his own entry as composer (replete with the same dates) highlights the exasperatingly recondite methods of Stokes, who even feels the need to apologise for "prominent absentees" from the book such as J. Freiherr Vesque von Püttlingen. Just in case you have never heard of Vesque von Püttlingen, he was an obscure 19th-century Austrian composer of pleasant lieder who went under the name of Johann Hoven. His absence from a book including texts set by Schumann, Brahms and Mahler is entirely justified but hardly "prominent", except perhaps for connoisseurs.
But then, connoisseurship, even at its most comically esoteric, is what the German lied has always been about. At its best, in this country it still enjoys performances of the highest quality (think of the brilliant accompanist Graham Johnson or singers such as Simon Keenlyside), and British writers have always contributed new knowledge and awareness, including Ernest Newman, Frank Walker and Eric Sams during the 20th century. Between them, far in advance of their German and Austrian colleagues, they revived Hugo Wolf's reputation as an astonishing composer of lieder. At its worst, it attracts misty-eyed snobbery and male weepiness that now seems like a grotesque parody of its former formidable status as a genre that only those properly educated in both literature and music were supposed to be able to appreciate.
Both women and men flourished as composers of the lied in the 19th century, as long as performances were kept within the confines of the domestic arena. (Only three of the many female composers of lieder, incidentally, make it into the book.) But as soon as it ventured into the public realm in print, or in performance in wider spaces, usually through the orchestration of the accompaniments, men took control of what was perceived to be a significant conduit of community sentiment, all the more powerful because of its specialist, intimate character at source.
In his foreword, Bostridge bravely raises the issue by referring to Anton von Werner's painting Quarters at a Base outside Paris (National Gallery Berlin), which was on view in the London National Gallery's Spirit of an Age exhibition in 2001. The painting depicts Prussian soldiers in muddy boots in an elegant French drawing room during the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, one of whom is singing a lied accompanied by another soldier in uniform at the piano. Bostridge thinks mistakenly that they are performing Schumann's setting of Joseph von Eichendorff's Mondnacht . But the painter himself made it clear that it was Schubert's setting of Heine's poem Das Meer erglänzte weit hinaus , extremely popular at the time among military bands. The difference is vital, if only because the music of the song is among Schubert's bleakest, its moroseness and presentiment of death in this military context an oddly prescient (and strangely moving) sign of ghastly things to come.
Admirers of the lied wanting to use this book are not likely to be interested primarily in the unsettling historical issues alluded to in its foreword. But they are likely to find it confusing. Stokes insists that one of its special features "is the attempt to print the sung version" of a text. Half a page later he says he has retained "the original punctuation of the edition used by the composer" and omitted all composers' repetitions of words and lines - a blatant contradiction passed over in silence.
The ordering of the volume is also bizarre. The same texts from Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship were set with varying titles by several composers. Here they have been arbitrarily assigned to Hugo Wolf (no reason given) with corresponding entries of Wolf's titles in the index. No other titles, not even Schubert's or Schumann's, are entered, and no first lines for these songs either, making references to the other settings impossible to locate.
This is only one example of many and is not acceptable in a book claiming to be a comprehensive collection of lieder texts. And neither is the omission of some famous texts from the British Isles in their original form. With po-faced literalness, Stokes has rescued them all from their German translations in words of his own practically without comment.
Ophelia's lines from Hamlet "Young men will do't, if they come to't;/ By cock, they are to blame" turn into risible quasi-Victorian vicarage parlance with "A young man does it when he can,/ Which is, forsooth, not right". And the line "Mount and make you ready" from Robert Burns's song The Captain's Lady is transformed via Wilhelm Gerhard's German version (set by Schumann) out of all recognition into "Steel across your tender body".
Burns it definitely is not. If Stokes were less aloof as an editor, he might have pointed out more clearly that something here has been found in translation - and perhaps even told us why.
John Deathridge is King Edward professor of music, King's College London.
The Book of Lieder: The Original Texts of Over 1,000 Songs
Editor - Edited and translated by Richard Stokes
Publisher - Faber
Pages - 432
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 571 22439 3