Schubert's Song Texts
Images, Themes, Contexts

This site contains the full text of all of the German poems that Franz Schubert set to music, with a parallel translation into modern English.

In his short life Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828) set about 700 poems to music. These texts were by a wide range of poets and they dealt with many different themes. Schubert's musical response to these texts is well known (and has been written about in many places), but what about the texts themselves? When and why were THEY written? What imagery did their poets use, and why? How might a close reading of these poems on their own terms inform our approach to Schubert's songs?

This web resource is therefore devoted to Schubert's song texts: images, themes and contexts. 

What are Schubert’s song texts about?

There is no such thing as a ‘typical’ Schubert song text. The 700 or so poems that he set to music cover the full range of German poetry from the ‘classics’ of the 18th century (e.g. Klopstock) to the modest, unpublished versifying by some of his less gifted friends in early 19th century Vienna (e.g. Heinrich Hüttenbrenner).  There are long ballads by Schiller and short lyrics by Goethe. There is Goethe as dramatist (Faust) and as novelist (Wilhelm Meister). There is Goethe in his Sturm und Drang incarnation as well as Goethe as proponent of Weimar Classicism. There are jolly drinking songs and heart-breaking laments, love songs and lullabies.

There is a range of different cultures. There are settings of translations from ancient Greek, and modern Slovenian. There are poems about life in ancient Egypt and medieval Europe. There are poems (in German translation) originally written in English (Shakespeare, Pope, Scott etc) and Italian (Petrarch). There are German poems based on Persian models (by poets like Goethe and Rückert, who both had a detailed knowledge of the Farsi tradition). There are poems about the early history of the Jews (Mirjams Siegesgesang) and the Arabs (Hagars Klage), and about the early years of Islam (Mahomets Gesang). There is a ballad about the Hindu practice of suttee (Der Gott und die Bajadere).

Some writers on Schubert have concluded from all of this that the composer had no particular interest in or taste for literature: he would set anything to music! Others argue exactly the opposite: the sheer range of texts is indicative of Schubert’s enormous range of sympathies, and his distinct musical response to different poems and genres is evidence that he was reading the texts closely and that he had an acute literary sensitivity.

What is included?

The site contains

  • the German text of each poem that Schubert set to music (including words, lines and stanzas that he omitted)
  • a translation into modern English
  • comments (and occasionally essays) intended to provide some of the historical and cultural background to the poems, and ideas to help readers think about the text in different ways
  • thematic indexes listing the poems according to the topics, images and symbols in the texts
  • lists of all Schubert’s settings of individual poets

What is not included?

There is nothing here about music or Schubert’s musical responses to the words. There are no links to performances of Schubert Lieder.

The site is devoted to the texts of Schubert’s Lieder and part-songs. Liturgical and stage works (e.g. opera) are not included, unless particular arias have been adapted for voice and piano to be performed in song recitals. As yet there are no commentaries on Schubert’s settings of texts in Latin, Hebrew and Italian. The few texts that Schubert is thought to have set but of which no trace of his music survives are not included.

Who is this site for?

It is hoped that anyone with an interest in the songs of Schubert or the history of poetry might find something stimulating here. Singers and pianists learning the repertoire might benefit from focusing on the poems on their own terms independently of the musical setting. People planning recitals might find the thematic indexes helpful. General listeners and readers might want to find more background about texts they have encountered as concert goers or while listening at home.

Above all, the site is for anyone who is happy to use a poem to open themselves up to different ideas, for anyone who values close reading and not being rushed. There may be provocative ideas here, but they are not intended to persuade anyone to think in any particular way or to claim that there is a fixed, single approach to understanding a text. The comments and essays simply aim to raise questions and stimulate thought.

You will inevitably notice mistakes (typos, mistranslations, misunderstandings, wrong dates etc.) and encounter ideas that you do not like. There will be arguments that are unpersuasive and unacknowledged assumptions that you would like to challenge. Please write to feedback@schubertsong.uk to respond to all of this.

Who put the site together?

Malcolm Wren obtained his doctorate (on Germany in the 1520s) from the University of Manchester (UK) in 1981. Since then he has worked as a Lecturer in the History of Ideas and in English for Academic Purposes in London and York (UK). He has also taught in Prague (the Czech Republic). He is currently a Senior Examiner for Cambridge University Press and Assessment.

He is a member of the Schubert Institute UK, a friend of the Wigmore Hall and of Leeds Lieder, and is a Guest Editor on LiederNet (https://www.lieder.net).


Malcolm Wren would like to offer special thanks to three of his colleagues on LiederNet:

Peter Rastl, who has established the wording of the German texts and made early editions of his book on the Schubert song texts available; Emily Ezust, the founder of LiederNet, who has encouraged the project from the beginning; and Shawn Thuris, who designed the front and back ends of the website.

Many thanks to the following for offering constructive comments on early drafts of some of the essays, and suggestions on what to include: John Taylor, Patricia Dillard Eguchi, Michael Coppins, Andrew Knight, Jamie Henderson, David Cloke, Robert Jenkinson and Paul Reid of the Schubert Institute UK. Special thanks to Graham Low for inspiring an interest in metaphor.

Using the site: Schubert’s song texts

On this site you can find the complete texts of all the German poems (and the translations into German from other languages) which Schubert set to music.

The main text is presented using modern German spelling conventions, but there were no such agreed rules when the poems were originally published. Anyone interested in the spelling of the text as Schubert knew it will find the ‘Original Spelling’ after the comments section, along with a link (where possible) to Schubert’s source.

In a number of cases the words of Schubert’s song are slightly different from the words of the poems as published in other places. This may be because (as is the case with Johann Mayrhofer, for example) Schubert was working from a manuscript provided directly by the poet, who then revised the text slightly before it was published. It may be because poets and editors changed the wording of texts in different editions of the poems. In some cases it is clear that Schubert made a change (or omitted some words or lines) deliberately. All of these differences between the texts as published and as set to music are indicated in the ‘notes on the text’ which appear with the Original Spelling version of the text towards the end of each page.

For many years the standard reference work on the sources that Schubert used as the basis of his compositions was the work edited by Maximilian and Lilly Schochow, Franz Schubert. Die Texte seiner einstimmig und mehrstimmig komponierten Lieder und ihre Dichter, published in 1974. However, more recent research, in particular facilitated by the availability of so many digitised sources online, has cast new light on the texts that Schubert was working from.

The texts on this site are therefore based on the work of Peter Rastl, who has prepared an updated version of Schochow’s book: Franz Schubert. Die Texte seiner Lieder und Gesänge und ihre Dichter  zusammengestellt und kritisch herausgegeben von Peter Rastl und Peter Dellitsch. Peter Rastl has made his critical editions of the song texts freely available on LiederNet (https://www.lieder.net/lieder/) and has kindly allowed me to use pre-publication drafts of his book.

Peter Rastl has managed to trace many of the sources that Schubert must have been using when composing his songs and has identified the authors of a number of texts which were previously listed as being by anonymous or unknown writers. He has also corrected some mistaken attributions. This may explain some discrepancies between the details about the texts here and those available from other (older) sources.

Using the site: the translations into English

The material on the Schubert Song Texts site was prepared on the assumption that many of its users would have only limited familiarity with the cultural background of the poems and / or the German language. The German poems that Schubert set to music thus appear with a translation into modern English, prepared specially for this site. They are not singing translations (i.e. it is not possible to sing the English words to Schubert’s music), nor are they poetry. There is no rhyme and the lines do not scan. They are simply intended as an aid to comprehension of the original German. As far as possible, they are line by line translations (i.e. the essential meaning on each line of poetry is conveyed in the equivalent line in the translation). If it is important for you to follow the meaning in this way, you are strongly recommended to use a device or a horizontal format that allows you to see the German and the English in parallel.

Using the site: the comments / essays

In a number of cases there are detailed essays on the background to the poem or to an aspect of the imagery. Elsewhere there are just a few comments intended simply to stimulate close reading of and engagement with the text. Although the writer has a background in the history of ideas and the cultural history of Europe, there is no intention of offering a single, ‘correct’ reading. Opinions are expressed, but these are not offered as ‘facts’ or ‘the truth’!

Using the site: the thematic indexes

An index appears under each of the poems listing many of the themes addressed (and the images used) in the text. Clicking on these will take you to a list of all the texts tagged with the same topic. So, for example, under ‘Die junge Nonne, D 828’, it is possible to select ‘Thunder and lightning’ or ‘Longing and yearning’ to find lists of the texts that deal with related subject matter.

Note that these lists function as indexes, not as a concordance. In other words, texts might deal with the experience of longing or yearning without explicitly using either word. You might disagree with the presence or absence of some topics or question their relevance, which is fine. The purpose is not to offer a definitive categorisation but simply to help readers think about the imagery and the topics of the texts!

Needless to say, the Search button can also be used to supplement the indexes.