Among the contemporary masters of the musical lyric, the most shining name is that of Robert Franz, a marked individuality, and, though indirectly moulded by the influence of Schubert and Schumann, a creative mind of a striking type.
The art-impulse, strikingly characteristic of Franz as a song composer, or, perhaps, to express it more accurately, the art-limitation, is that the musical inspiration is directly dependent on the poetic strength of the Lied. He would be utterly at a loss to treat a poem which lacked beauty and force. With but little command over absolute music, that flow of melody which pours from some natures like a perennial spring, the poetry of word is necessary to evoke poetry of tone.
Robert Franz, like Schumann, was embarrassed in his youth by the bitter opposition of his family to his adoption of music, and, like the great apostle of romantic music, his steady perseverance wore it out. He made himself a severe student of the great masters, and rapidly acquired a deep knowledge of the mysteries of harmony and counterpoint. There are no songs with such intricate and difficult accompaniments, though always vital to the lyrical motive, as those of Robert Franz. For a long time, even after he felt himself fully equipped, Franz refrained from artistic production, waiting till the processes of fermenting and clarifying should end, in the mean while promising he would yet have a word to say for himself.
With him, as with many other men of genius, the blow which broke the seal of inspiration was an affair of the heart. He loved a beautiful and accomplished woman, but loved unfortunately. The catastrophe ripened him into artistic maturity, and the very first effort of his lyric power was marked by surprising symmetry and fullness of power. He wrote to give overflow to his deep feelings, and the song came from his heart of hearts. Robert Schumann, the generous critic, gave this first work an enthusiastic welcome, and the young composer leaped into reputation at a bound. Of the four hundred or more songs written by Robert Franz, there are perhaps fifty which rank as masterpieces. His life has passed devoid of incident, though rich in spiritual insight and passion, as his Lieder unmistakably show. Though the instrumental setting of this composer’s songs is so elaborate and beautiful oftentimes, we frequently find him at his best in treating words full of the simplicity and naivete of the old Volkslied. Many of his songs are set to the poems of Robert Burns, one of the few British poets who have been able to give their works the subtile singing quality which comes not merely of the rhythm but of the feeling of the verse. Heine also furnished him with the themes of many of his finest songs, for this poet has been an inexhaustible treasure-trove to the modern lyric composer. One of the most striking features of Franz as a composer is found in the delicate light and shade, introduced into the songs by the simplest means, which none but the man of genius would think of; for it is the great artist who attains his ends through the simplest effects.