Skip to main content

Composers

Josephine Lang

(1815- 1880)

Josephine Lang (1815-1880) was a much-respected song composer, inspiring early biographies by her contemporary Ferdinand Hiller and son Heinrich Köstlin. Her family included many professional musicians. Initially taught by her mother, the opera singer Regine Hitzelberger-Lang, she performed virtuosic works in public by the age of eleven. Lack of money forced her to forego an advanced musical education and give piano lessons while still a child herself.

When Felix Mendelssohn met her in 1830, he was deeply impressed by her talent. In 1831, he wrote effusively to his family of her originality and sensitivity. He galvanised his powerful network on her behalf (in stark contrast to his discouragement of his own superbly gifted sister Fanny) and even gave her composition lessons. While her family remained unwilling and unable to let her travel for study, she became established in Munich’s musical circles. She was composing songs from the age of thirteen, and the 1830s were probably her most fertile decade as a composer. After initial reservations, Robert Schumann reviewed her songs positively in the influential journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.

Lang married the legal professor Reinhold Köstlin in 1842. The couple faced many difficulties, including poor health on both sides, different religions (Lang was Catholic and Köstlin Protestant), and financial need, all exacerbated by the birth of six children in seven years. Köstlin’s death in 1856 resulted in years of extreme hardship for Lang. Friends rallied round, for instance in 1867, Hiller published a biographical essay on her which brought not only greater visibility, but substantial financial gifts; and Clara Schumann assisted with publication opportunities. When Lang’s daughter Maria married and moved to Vienna, she became a friend of Brahms’s and gave him copies of her mother’s songs, inspiring his own settings of Köstlin’s poetry.

Lang lacked formal training and faced countless obstacles, yet she steadily composed and published at least 150 songs during her lifetime, with many more still in manuscript. Her sketches reveal a composer who is exacting about musical detail and whose songs can be startlingly ambitious in scale. Her melodies demand a large vocal range and her accompaniments explore original and varied textures. She herself described her songs as her ‘diary’, but they transcend this function.

The poetry Lang set reflects contemporary tastes as well as documenting her circle of friends. She set poems by Goethe and Schiller when still young, alongside popular figures such as Theodor Körner, Wilhelm Müller and August von Platen. But she also set works by the Swabian poet Justinus Kerner, whom she knew, and others from her social circle. Above all, she frequently set her husband’s poetry.

A song like ‘Frühzeitiger Frühling’ Op. 6 no.3 is a wonderful entry into Lang’s style, in a setting of Goethe. Her melodies are always unexpected, as one can hear in the passionate, unrestrained setting of ‘Mignons Klage’ from Op.10 (a setting of the famous text ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt’), a song which demands superb technique. ‘Herbstgefühl’ has Wagnerian expansiveness.

Many of Lang’s published songs are available on IMSLP. At the time of writing, around 25 have been recorded. Harald and Sharon Krebs published an excellent, comprehensive study of her life and works in 2006.

© Natasha Loges, 2022

Worked with the following poets texts