And then at the end of the 19th century we had the composer Hugo Wolf, who developed a whole different and very intense kind of relationship between text and music. Here we find hardly any songs which are simply vocal melody and piano accompaniment. The classical tradition is now gone. Now the melody is not always with the singer’s line but often occurs within the piano. Let’s look to some iconic texts of Goethe, from the novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. They are sung, in the novel, by a mysterious secretive girl: Mignon. It seems she came from Italy, but everything around her feels foreign and somehow haunting. One of the most famous of her songs begins with this line: Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, weiss, was ich leide. (Only the one who knows what longing is, can understand my suffering.)
Here we have a word which already has such an impact and meaning: Sehnsucht. The word doesn’t exist in any other language: it is made for German song. A more romantic German song text than this poem does not exist! So many composers set it, for example Schubert (six times!) and Schumann. Their songs are undoubtedly beautiful, but what Wolf did (and that was only possible at the end of the 19th century), moved it really so much further. In Wolf’s setting, the text and the music are so intertwined that one can hardly imagine anymore that they were ever separate things. At this pinnacle in the development of Lieder, music gives the word a meaning which becomes bigger than the word itself. We understand Sehnsucht because of the music. Sehnsucht is, in itself, a beautiful word, but the music of Hugo Wolf brings it to a point that we really can understand what it is. Wolf did this in large part by his use of tonality, and avoiding tonality. His setting of Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt has the tonality of G minor, but there is no G minor in the piece! From the beginning of the song exists the longing to reach G minor, but we never do. Therein lies the whole meaning of Sehnsucht, expressed in tonality: such an intense and deep longing for something that you will never achieve or reach. It is … beyond. And it was Hugo Wolf who had the capacity and genius to give that word a new meaning. At this point of the development of German lieder, the function of the music is not to accompany a vocal melody but to express the real meaning of the texts.