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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 21, No. 1 September 2015

What is an Art Song?

by Michčle Duguay / September 1, 2015

Version française...


 Erlkonig

Schubert’s Erlkönig

In 1815, a young Franz Schubert sent a letter and some musical scores to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The famous poet sent them back without comments. The letter contained, among others, a composition named Der Erlkönig (The Elf-King), a setting of a Goethe poem composed when Schubert was only 16 years old.

This piece, which attained fame when it was first performed six years after its composition, is still a staple of today’s repertoire. The poem depicts a father rushing through the forest on horseback with his sick son. The alarmed child keeps seeing the Elf-King, who is trying to lure him into the woods. Despite the father’s constant, reassuring words, when the travellers finally arrive at the inn, the child is dead in his father’s arms.

The way Schubert managed to represent this in a short song is so complex, convincing, and detailed that it accounts in large part for the piece’s ongoing popularity. As we can see in the score excerpt, the constant, repeated notes of the piano’s right hand, paired with the galloping motif of the left hand, depicts the wind and the bolting horse while contributing to the stressful atmosphere. When the accompaniment finally slows down and comes to a full stop, it is to convey the realization of the child’s death. Even more interesting is the way Schubert characterizes the four characters (the narrator, the son, the father, and the Elf-King himself) musically. The father’s text, set to a lower range, aims to be reassuring. The son’s entries become progressively higher, depicting his rising panic. When the Elf-king sings, it is in the major mode, as he is trying to entice the young child. These characteristics are often cleverly emphasized by singers, who subtly adjust their facial expressions and demeanour to embody the different characters.

All of these elements combine to make an art song that has endured through the centuries. The simplest definition of this term is a musical setting of text, most likely a poem, for voice and piano. The simple instrumentation might account for the genre’s ongoing popularity, as these are two very accessible instruments. Art songs are also usually fairly short, rarely exceeding three minutes in length. It is different from an operatic aria as it is not part of a larger work, but it can nonetheless be assembled with other pieces in a song-cycle.

Interestingly, each rendition of an art song can bring out different nuances of a piece. Compare Jessye Norman and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau renditions of Der Erlkönig. Watch a video performance for the full effect! Even though both performers follow the same score, their interpretations of the piece are entirely different.

A Poem in Music

There is yet another reason for to the popularity of this genre. In a good art song, the music can express things that are not necessarily present in the poem. Let’s take another Schubert piece as an example: Gretchen Am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the spinning wheel) is a musical setting of a Goethe poem composed by Schubert when he was 17.

Gretchen is impatient to see her lover again. Her restlessness is depicted by the ongoing notes in the right hand of the piano. They circle round and around again, much like the spinning wheel where she is working. When the accompaniment stops on the words “Sein Kuss!” (his kiss), we picture Gretchen’s spinning wheel coming to a stop as she is overcome by emotion. All of these musical details add to the poem.

Another example is Schumann’s Helft mir, ihr Schwestern, where the narrator expresses nervousness and anticipation concerning her upcoming wedding. Even though the actual ceremony is not described in words, in this piece, and later in the Frauenliebe und –leben cycle, it is referred to by the piano postlude that sounds like a wedding march.

A Widespread Musical Tradition

Up to this point, I have only discussed German art songs, called lieder. Germany has produced several prolific composers: Franz Schubert, for instance, composed over 600 lieder. Robert Schumann, Hugo Wolf, Johannes Brahms, and Richard Strauss are other remarkable composers. Recent research has focused on lieder by female composers such as Clara Wieck-Schumann, Robert Schumann’s wife.

France also has a well-known art song tradition: famous composers of mélodies include Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, and Francis Poulenc. In Debussy’s Mandoline, the music also emphasizes some aspects of the poem. The opening piano chord, G-D-A, mimics the mandolin referenced in the title, as the three lowest strings of this instrument are tuned on these notes. The chromatic inflections in the melody prove to be quite challenging for the singer - somehow, these sliding and elusive harmonies complement the mood of the poem, where various mythological characters move around in a garden filled with blue shadows.

This quick glance at German and French art song traditions does not do justice to the breadth of this repertoire. Throughout the rest of Europe, several composers, such as Edward Grieg and Jean Sibelius, have composed art songs. America also has a rich art song tradition, and countless composers are writing them today.

If art songs have remained popular, it is because of their composers’ attention to detail. The piano is not a mere accompaniment. It is rather on equal footing with the voice, and both performers need to be aware of this. Every piece is carefully constructed, and each note has a meaning. A successful art song represents the perfect union between music and poetry.


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