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."
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 genres.
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 and churches.
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 text.
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 Wolf.
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.
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 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.
There are many excellent web sites that serve as starting points for learning more about Art Song. We suggest the following:
The Lotte Lehmann Foundation
Mary 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.