Songs I Liked the First Time – David Newman

One of the wonderful things about art song, and classical music in general, is that great works often expose their full beauty over time. I’ve sung Handel’s Messiah more than a hundred times, and yet each time I hear it, I discover new aspects to enjoy. One of my very favorite songs, Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” didn’t inspire me at all the first time I heard it. Now, it melts me.

However, there are also art songs which are more easily digested, for one reason or another. I realized a few years ago that these were perfect pieces to sing on recitals for groups of people who haven’t been previously exposed to art song. If they hooked me right away, perhaps they would do the same for others.

Here is a list of a few of my favorites, each of which I fell in love with the very first time I heard it.

  • Erlkönig by Schubert

    I first heard this song in my freshman music history class at Westminster Choir College. It and the following two songs were played to introduce us to German Lieder. I think this was a brilliant choice. One could hardly ask for three more powerful, emotional, and immediately gratifying songs. Perhaps Schubert’s youth when composing this masterpiece makes it more accessible to teenagers. Certainly, its melodromatic quality and thundering rhythmic accompaniment give it immediate appeal. I wish someone would make a really good music video of this…

  • Ich grolle nicht by Schumann

    I’m fond of calling this one of the greatest rock songs of the 19th century. Its powerful chordal accompaniment would make it entirely at home in a Billy Joel concert. Stephen Sondheim would love it for the way the music contradicts the words, letting us in on the true emotions of the singer. There is great depth to this song, but it is also immediately accessible, even to those who haven’t developed a taste for classical music.

  • Gretchen am Spinnrade by Schubert

    This song has a terrific dramatic arch, and the spinning wheel effect that runs throughout the song in the accompaniment gives it intense rhythmic drive as well as a richly colored landscape. It does help to know what’s going on in the song, but I think I enjoyed it the first time for the music alone.

  • Beau Soir by Debussy

    This is as accessible as impressionism gets. Whole tone scales and unusual modulations are melded so naturally into the piece that one never feels challenged by them. Yet, they imbue this piece with a luscious soundscape that makes this song a feast for the senses.

  • Hôtel by Poulenc

    Poulenc’s jazzy musical style combines delightfully with this text that celebrates the pleasure of doing nothing (and smoking.)

  • Der Rattenfänger by Wolf

    This song about a rat catcher has a vigorous and colorful recurring theme that hooked me immediately. I haven’t heard it done much, but I still really like this song.

  • Clair de lune by Fauré

    The opening piano introduction of this song is one of the most haunting melodies ever written. I’ve grown to love the whole song, but I loved that introduction from the first hearing.

  • Du bist die Ruh by Schubert

    This one, too, has an exquisite opening motif in the piano accompaniment, as well as a brilliant dramatic arch.

If I gave it enough time, I could probably come up with a dozen more lists of this size on the same topic. And perhaps I shall. But for now, this will have to suffice.

Though these songs are all certainly familiar to lieder fans, I hope this list will have introduced new favorites to people whose exposure to art song has been less complete…

David Newman

American baritone David Newman has an active and varied career as a singer throughout North America and Europe. While he routinely appears in concert with some of North America’s leading early music ensembles, he has also recorded an opera with Luciano Pavarotti, sung cabaret with Helen Schneider, and played in several rock bands. He recently sang in the première of “Le Tournoi de Chauvency” at The Arsenal in Metz, France. After teaching voice for seven years at UC Davis, he now lives in Virginia and teaches part-time at James Madison University.