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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 17, No. 2 October 2011

Art Songs

by Tiana Malone / October 1, 2011

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I have worked a lot with kids over the years. When they find out I’m a classical singer, I’m often met with the demand of “Sing us some opera”, to which I always reply, “Name me an opera.” More often than not, even young children are able to come up with “Carmen” or “The Barber of Seville” – thanks to Looney Tunes, if nothing else. But opera is only a small fraction of a classical singer’s repertoire. I’ve never once had one of those kids demand, “Sing us an art song”, and in all honesty, until my second year of college, I wasn’t entirely sure what an art song was either. But the art song repertoire vastly exceeds that of opera in stylistic and artistic diversity, as well as in sheer number of works, and it is relatively enigmatic even to those who consider themselves classical music lovers.

What is an art song?
Categorizations in classical music are tricky. Art songs come in all shapes and sizes, styles and voices, but your standard art song must meet a few criteria to distinguish itself from other forms of song such as aria or folk song. An art song must:

• Be a piece of solo vocal music set to poetry
• Be performed by a classically trained singer
• Be supported by piano or small ensemble
• Not necessarily require staging, set, costumes or lighting (though they may be used)
• Be written down in sheet music
• Be of short duration (approx. 3 minutes)

Sometimes a composer puts together in a collection art songs meant to be performed in sequence, in what is called a “Song Cycle”. These art songs may have been grouped by the composer himself and may be unified by poet, central theme or story, or even posthumously unified by editors in some cases.

Art songs in different languages
English: art songs
French: mélodies
German: Lieder/Kunstlieder
Italian: romanze/canzoni
Spanish: canciones
Russian: romans/романсы
Dutch: liederen
Portugese: canções
Swedish: sånger
Czech: písně
Polish: piosenki


Famous Schubert Lieder & Song Cycles
Der Erlkönig
Die Forelle
Gretchen am Spinnrade
Die Junge Nonne
Die Winterreise
Die schöne Müllerin


Some famous Song Cycles
Schubert: Winterreise (1827)
Schumann: Dichterliebe (1840)
Fauré: La Bonne Chanson (1894)
Wolf: Mörike-Lieder (1888)
Debussy: Fêtes galantes (1891-1904)
Vaughan Williams: Songs of Travel (1904)
Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire (1912)
Poulenc: Banalités (1940)
Barber: Hermit Songs (1953)

Who writes art songs?
More often than not, “classical” composers write art songs. Almost all of the great composers wrote some form of art songs in their careers. Beethoven, Mozart, Debussy, Brahms, Berlioz, Richard Strauss, Dvorak, Rachmaninoff, Britten and Copland have all written art songs that are still part of the repertoire today. Even the young Wagner wrote some… in French! Arguably the most famous composer of art songs was the Viennese composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828), who wrote upwards of 700 Lieder in his lifetime, which is a feat unto itself when you consider he composed over half of them before age 20 and died at age 31. His Lieder are considered masterworks, combining text, voice and piano in an inseparable trio. Some of his most famous Lieder were composed on the poems of great German poets such as Müller, Heine and Goethe. Schubert was famous for creating piano parts that were an inseparable contribution to the poetic text, creating not just moods and emotions, but distinct musical pictures of the words. His “Die Forelle” (The Trout) is an excellent example, creating musical bubbles in the piano as the fish in the poem thrashes about.

There are young artist training programs specifically devoted to Schubert’s art songs, such as the Franz-Schubert-Insitut in Baden bei Wien, Austria. The Institute’s Director, Dr. Deen Larsen, is truly a master of Schubert’s works, and had this to say on the richness of Schubert’s songs:

“I find there a cosmos of deeply experienced human emotions that are authentic and honest in their awareness of being mysteriously part of a greater natural world. His music, as a dual enhancement of words and spirit, offers entrances into a zone of Real Presence, which is a fundamental need of the soul.”

Who performs art songs?
An art song, by our definition, must be performed by a trained classical singer. But this was not always the case. In Schubert’s time, untrained but skilled vocalists performed his songs during informal gatherings in the salons of rich patrons and friends of the composer. These evenings were very popular in 19th-century Vienna and later became known as Schubertiades. Slowly, the genre became more formalized, and eventually the complexity and depth of the compositions called for trained performers of high caliber. Today, art songs are almost exclusively performed by trained classical performers.

Another important and relatively new idea in art song is that the pianist or instrumental ensemble and singer are equally valued as performers and contributors to the interpretation. This is not often the case with other forms of vocal music, where the singer is seen as the interpreter and the orchestra or piano as the accompaniment. In fact, in relation to art song, the term “accompanist” has become rather taboo and has been replaced by “collaborator”, indicating more balanced contributions to the overall interpretation.

Where does art song stand in music today?
Art songs are not a genre of the past. The concise nature of art songs makes it very amenable to composers, as compared with opera or orchestral works; they take less time to write, very little money to mount a performance, and require fewer performers.

Most of the big operatic names perform art songs in their concerts, providing their audiences with a glimpse into this vast repertoire. Both Renée Fleming and Anne Sofie von Otter featured art songs by jazz composer Brad Mehldau in their Montreal concerts in early 2011. Art songs have also made their way onto Broadway in the form of staged, unified song cycles such as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats and Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World.

Art songs are being rejuvenated in the Canadian classical music scene. Programs for the development of young artists, traditionally concerned with operatic performance, are focusing more on this vast repertoire, even catering specifically to art songs in some cases. This year, Montreal’s Canadian Vocal Arts Institute (icav-cvai.org) featured a masterclass with the world-renowned tenor Michel Sénéchal, who was a friend of the great Poulenc and provided young singers a chance to learn about the tradition of French mélodies from a true master of the genre.

On the West Coast, the Vancouver International Song Institute is taking a more updated and even controversial approach to art songs by creating staged performances. Founder Rena Sharon had this to say on her approach to art songs and her view of their future in the performance world:

“I’ve been a renegade and agent provocateur since 1994, when I began developing the Art Song Theatre genre! At the time it seemed like an interesting and useful innovation. Now staging is a real emerging art form - still finding its way, but increasingly accepted. Audiences find the genre very appealing and accessible, which is surely a good thing for the future of Art Song. At the Vancouver International Song Institute we have launched the SONGFIRE Theatre and Apprenticeship program for singers, pianists, directors, and writers, to create a canon of new practices and new works in this genre. Staging does not replace the traditional recital. The direct heart-to-heart experience of singer/pianist/audience is intense and profound. The important criterion in any artistic genre is the sharing of one’s authentic humanity - whenever that happens, the world falls away and we experience our universal commonalities.”

The Art Song genre is a rich mine of musical gems, awaiting discovery. Art songs can provide a little something for everyone, in every language, in almost every style, from the more dramatic and operatic (Schubert’s Die Erlkönig) to comedic cabaret (Bolcom’s Toothbrush Time), and can touch the inner parts of the soul. With this emergence of new, more accessible forms of art songs, when I next meet a group of children, will I be met with demands of “Sing us some Schubert”? One can only hope.

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