It is a testament to Mozart's prolific nature that his over 30 songs are a mere "blip" in the catalogue of his works--so minor a component of his output that they are frequently overlooked or ignored. More important than their number, however (after all, Henri Duparc achieved fame on the merit of a mere 16 songs), is the fact that Mozart's songs were composed before the great flowering of Romantic poetry and ideology that would bring Germanic song to its pinnacle in the Nineteenth Century. The remarkable confluence of music and poetry that appeared in the works of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and Hugo Wolf made the diminutive lied a vessel for Romantic outpouring and a unique distillation of the Nineteenth Century spirit. However, often overlooked is the extent to which the Romantic lied was indebted to a long standing tradition of Germanic song, and specifically the songs of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven--the authors of the first true masterpieces of the genre.
Though not extensive, Mozart's song output is extremely various, including songs in German, French and Italian. They illustrate the breadth of his talent for vocal composition, the cosmopolitan nature of his musical influences, and the degree to which his musical choices were shaped by poetry. Of his German songs, "Das Veilchen" (The Violet) is his best known and regarded. "Das Veilchen" is a setting of Wolfgang von Goethe, perhaps the most famous of the Romantic poets, and it shows Mozart attentiveness to text. Subtle changes of inflection, modality, and vocal contour bring out the tragic irony of Goethe's ostensibly simple poem and create a psychological mini-drama, foreshadowing the direction lieder composition would take under the influence of a new generation of poets. Other fine German songs include "Abendempfindung" (Evening Reflections) and "An Chloë" (To Chloe)--both of which illustrate Mozart's ability to highlight the mood of a poem within an overtly lyrical context--and the comical "Warnung" (Warning), which warns parents to "lock away their young maidens".
Mozart's two Italian songs, not surprisingly, resemble operatic arias in their style and construction. "Ridente la calma" (Tranquility fills my soul) is reminiscent especially of the composer's arias for his opere serie, and "Un moto di gioja" (A surge of joy) was intended to replace Susanna's "Deh vieni, non tardar" from the fourth act of The Marriage of Figaro.
"Oiseaux, si tous les ans" (Birds, if every year…) and "Dans un bois solitaire" (in a lonely wood), Mozart's two French songs, were written during a stay in Mannheim, and they are remarkable mostly as examples of the composer's adaptability to language. Whether composing in Italian, German, or French, he managed to highlight the flow, stress, and cadence of the particular text without ever sacrificing his individual melodic gift. Although the French songs were very popular when written, they have since become better-known in German translation.