What is Art Song? History of the Music Genre

A Literary Form of Poetry Sung with Piano

Art song is a genre of secular vocal music with roots which can be traced back to the Middle Ages. In Shakespeare's England, for example, the poetry and music of the English Renaissance were brought into madrigals and other musical forms by Elizabethan composers such as John Dowland.

Art song became especially popular during the Romantic era of 19th-century Europe and is thus often considered a genre of Romantic music.

Art song recital is one of the most rigidly formalized of music genres, a single, elegantly dressed and formally-trained singer performs a collection of related songs accompanied by a pianist.

Characteristics

The main characteristics of an art song are:

  • It is a short piece for solo voice
  • The verses are well-written and may either be through-composed (that is, each stanza of the poem is sung to a different melody) or strophic (in which all stanzas of the poem are sung to the same music)
  • It is most often accompanied by a pianist using virtuoso techniques
  • It is of high artistic and literary quality
  • It ends with a postlude, a concluding section played by the piano

A group of art songs all connected by a single musical idea is called a song cycle (Liederkreis or Liederzyklus in German). Examples of song cycles include "Cypress Trees" by Antonin Dvorak and "Les nuits d'été" by Hector Berlioz.

Medieval Roots: German Art Song

German art song is known in German as Lied, or Lieder in its plural form.

Early lieder were monophonic, using a single melodic line, and the oldest manuscripts we have are dated to the 12th and 13th centuries. By the 14th century, polyphonic lieder—songs with two more melodic lines—were preferred, a style which reached its highest popularity in the mid-16th century. Lieder may also be accompanied by a chamber ensemble or a full orchestra.

Beginning in the 15th century, a tradition of taking a polyphonic art song and reworking it arose. These changes could be extremely slight, as when a snippet of tenor voice might be inserted into a new composition, rather like modern sampling. But composers also created substantial new compositions out of old ones, borrowing melodies and structures of old favorites to innovate into new forms that fell into both sacred and secular realms.

Romantic Revival

After the 16th century, the popularity of lieder diminished, until its revival during the 19th century. Works of notable poets like Goethe were set to music by equally notable composers such as Johannes Brahms, who wrote about 300 solo works. Other active lieder composers included  Franz Schubert who composed 650 lieder (such as "Death and the Maiden," "Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel," Little Heath Rose," "The Erlkönig" and "The Trout") and several song cycles (i.e. "Winterreise"). Robert Schumann composed 160 songs and five song cycles, and Hugo Wolf wrote about 300 songs, many of which were published after his death.

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