What is Art Song?
The Nature of Song
The human voice is a natural instrument with unique capabilities.
Speech and music have been combined since the earliest times,
so that Song is probably one of the oldest musical forms. Simple
definitions for song might be "a piece of music performed
by voice, with or without instrumental accompaniment," or
"a poem set to music."
Music enhances words with emotional energy that speech alone
cannot convey. But obviously, there is more to it than this! There
are vocal compositions, for example, with no articulated text
at all, called vocalises or vocalizzi in Italian. Although such
works traditionally have been used as exercises, some 20th century
composers have written concert vocalises as well. Additionally,
singing styles differ among cultures, reflecting such influences
as social structures, levels of literacy, languages and even sexual
mores. This has resulted in a wide variety of musical products
commonly accepted as "song."
A Little History
We do not have the space here to trace the historical development
of song in great detail. Since our focus is understanding the
nature of Art Song, we will focus instead on the predominate influences
that shaped this musical genre and its defining characteristics.
The advent of the modern art song marked a rejection of two prevailing
attitudes found in mid-16th century polyphony, that is when more
than one melody is played or sung simultaneously. First was the
principle that a given piece of vocal music could at different
times be performed in any number of alternative ways, sometimes
solo, sometimes ensemble, sometimes instruments alone. Second
was the idea that the song's text is merely a servant of the music.
An increasing concern for textual interpretation began to appear
in the mid-16th century. Emotionally significant texts in polyphonic
compositions were emphasized through the use of special rhythms
to make the text better understood, as well as through unexpected
harmonic progressions, chromaticism, the use of notes outside
the song's mode, and coloratura, that is florid ornamentation.
The final step in the transfer of these various techniques from
"part" music to genuine "solo" music came
at the end of the 16th-century, notably in Italian monody (expressive
melody with chordal accompaniment- Caccini and Peri come to mind)
and English lute songs by Dowland and Campian.
Seventeenth-century dramatic music saw further refinement of
song style that likewise influenced Art Song. Distinctions arose
between recitative, which is word-oriented and rhythmically free,
with simple chordal accompaniment, and the aria, which was more
virtuosic and melodically elaborate, with varied accompaniment.
Indeed arias came to dominate opera, cantata and oratorio because
they were more musically interesting, and in the 18th century
relatively little attention was paid to solo songs outside these
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Art Song vs. Folk Song
In Western music, it is customary to distinguish folk song, popular
song and Art Song. Folk songs generally are sung with simple accompaniment
(guitar) or a cappella and usually are learned by ear. They are
written down only infrequently, so through generations of oral
transmission they are susceptible to changes in words and melodies.
Composers of most folk songs are unknown. Art songs, on the other
hand, are intended for performance by professional or at least
carefully taught singers, generally accompanied by piano or instrumental
ensemble. The words and notes are written down and therefore resist
incidental or casual changes. Popular songs stand midway between
folk and art songs with regard to technical difficulty, sophistication,
and resistance to change.
Folk songs often accompany activities such as religious ceremonies,
dancing, labor or courtship, or are intended to tell exciting
or sentimental stories. They have relatively simple melodies,
usually with only one or a few notes per syllable. The language
tends to follow certain conventions and often is repetitive. Music
and words are easily understandable. Art songs in the European
tradition are rarely connected with other activities. Texts and
melodies tend to be subtle, sophisticated, highly organized, wide-ranging
and complex, demanding repeated hearings for full comprehension
and appreciation. Art Song, like classical music, is essentially
an urban phenomenon, in some ways a lingering product of an aristocratic
society with origins in the medieval courts, colleges, cities
So What Really Makes It An Art Song?
Based on what we've discussed so far, an art song might be defined
as "a poem set to music, usually for trained voice and piano
accompaniment with a duration of about three minutes." The
German word for such classical song is Lied (singular) and Lieder
(plural), so that you will hear the terms "art song,"
"lied" and "lieder" used interchangeably.
In France the term is Melodie, and in Italy, Romanza.
But more than this simple definition denotes, an art song strives
to be the perfect combination of music and literature, based on
four elements: poet, composer, singer and accompanist. The composer
uses the full resources of the art form to embellish the poet's
text, sometimes even realizing potential interpretations that
were not explicit in the poet's words. In well-realized Art Song,
the composer creates a duet between the accompanist and the vocalist.
That is, the art song paints for us a picture of what the poet
might have envisioned. The performance of an art song literally
breathes life into this picture through a complementary, coordinated
partnership among the four significant elements. Art Song of the
17th century through the present reflects these mutual influences
of music and literature, and the most enduring masterpieces show
extraordinary sensitivity of the composer to the individual words,
to the prosody (poetic form), and the overall character of the
In the repertory of the 17th and the 18th centuries, the singer
is the prime interpreter of the text, though complete piano parts
began to appear regularly in the latter part of this period. Art
Song probably reached a climax in expression, appreciation and
perfection during the early 19th century. Beginning with Schubert,
the leading Romantic songwriters learned to exploit the device
of varying a strophic melody. The composer would use a basic musical
framework for each stanza but change voice and accompaniment details
to suit the progressing text. This concept eventually evolved
into through-composed songs where the music is so closely wedded
to the text that little repetition occurs and new motives or musical
ideas are constantly being introduced to more exactly express
the text. This technique reached it's apex in the songs of Hugo
Twentieth-century composers continued to explore the relation
of voice to accompaniment and to expand the singer's range of
expression and technique, sometimes treating the voice instrumentally
(as in vocalise). Although in some cases the accompaniment continues
to play a subservient role to the voice, since the 19th century
the trend has been toward greater participation in the interpretation.
The accompaniment may reinforce the emotional states of the poem,
represent external details in the setting, assist in building
to climaxes, and since Schumann, provide preludes, interludes
or postludes. It may even follow its own independent ideas and
therefore free the voice to express other meanings.
Thankfully, art songs are still being written, performed and recorded
today. In fact, some people view the present as another golden age of
Art Song performance. Since it has become very expensive to record operas,
many gifted singers now are recorded in art song recitals instead.
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What to Listen for in Art Song
We mentioned above a quartet aspect of Art Song: the poet inspires
the composer, and the resulting musical product is interpreted
by the singer and the accompanist. The goal of Art Song performance
is direct and simultaneous communication of tone and word, with
the word-painting and feelings of the poet and composer both touching
and palpable. The accompanist should provide the harmonic significance
of the sung melody, and is not merely background to support the
singer! The interplay between accompanist and singer is on many
levels. Dynamics should be applied carefully to focus attention
on dramatic or intimate moments.
The singer's diction should be keen, with appropriate dynamics
and shadings of words regardless of whether the song is in his
or her native language. He or she should project joy in singing,
and possess sufficient charisma to convince the audience of complete
technical mastery and emotional identification with every song.
Just as a good song should progress harmonically, build in intensity
and change emotionally throughout its performance, the overall
program should be constructed with a variety of well-known and
lesser-known songs, and it should engage the audience through
contrasting scenes and emotions whenever possible. Humor is often
a welcome dramatic relief.
Art Song Today
Art Song performance persisted as a popular pastime in cultured
society before the advent of automated media such as radio, movies,
MTV and the internet began to dull our senses to the excitement
of live musical performance. Art Song interpretation became a
rarely practiced craft in our "modern," pre-packaged
and mechanized society. Perhaps because of this there has been
a resurgence of interest in Art Song composition and performance.
Listeners who are exposed to this genre do come to feel it is
an important musical form that needs to be preserved. We feel
that the spontaneous beauty of Art Song can help listeners re-connect
with authentic experience.
"Artsong is one of our most vital and communicative musical genres
– it flows and carries with it the language of our changing times."
Composer Libby Larsen.
For More Information
There are many excellent web sites that serve as starting points
for learning more about Art Song. We suggest the following:
African-American Art-Song Alliance
Latin American Art Song Alliance
The Lotte Lehmann Foundation
Lotte Lehmann League
Marilyn Horne Foundation
(Now part of the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall)
REC Music: Lied and Song Text Page
Ann Malloy was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and presently
resides with her family in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She is a classical
voice student at the Academy of Music in Ghent where she studies
with Ms. Karen Scott. She has been a member of various choruses
and choirs and currently is a cantor and soprano section leader
at the Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base Chapel in Norfolk under
the direction of Mr. Scott Sward. During the 2000-2001 season, Ms.
Malloy also was a performing member of the Norfolk Art Song Society,
an organization dedicated to the study, interpretation and advancement
of art song. She holds masters and doctoral degrees from George
Mason University and Old Dominion University in technical disciplines.
She is an engineering professional as well as an adjunct faculty
member at ODU.
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