Art Songs

19th Century

The solo song occupied an important place in Romantic music.  Romantic poetry was set for the voice and piano in a highly personal and subjective manner.  The two basic types of formal organization in these works were strophic (songs in which all stanzas were sung to the same music) and through-composed. The latter had more possibilities for the Romantic idiom because it allowed every poetic nuance to have its own musical expression. The piano created and sustained the mood of each poem and was an equal partner with the singer.  German composers of Lieder set poems by such writers as Heine, Schiller, and Goethe -- poets who epitomized the Romantic spirit.  Songs with related texts were often grouped into cycles.  These song cycles were frequently setting of one poet, and were related by a central idea, or theme.  Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, and Richard Strauss were the most important composers of the German Lied. The venue for Lieder performances was primarily the homes of patrons.  While the German Lied held the prominent place in song literature, both the French and the Russians also fostered art song literature of high quality.  The French especially were helped by the Romantic poets to create songs of exceptional lyric beauty, commonly referred to as "mélodie."

20th Century

The art song continued to be a popular vehicle for composers in the 20th century.  While some continued in the tradition of the late Romantics, others sought new and widely varied means of expression.  In the songs of the atonal composers such as Berg and Webern, a more angular melodic treatment was given to the voice and greater emphasis was given to the accompaniment.  "Accompaniment" inaccurately designates the instrumental part of most 20th-century vocal compositions, because the voice and associated instruments form an ensemble rather that a vocal line with instrumental background.  In many instances composers turned to folk melodies and set them in a modern idiom, settings that were not governed by the lush harmonic textures of Romantic music.  Such works often involved instrumental chamber groups instead of the piano.

One modern phenomenon of song-writing has been the disintegration of the melodic line into a highly inflected declamatory part.  The device known as "sprechstimme" was used in combination with small instrumental groups by a number of the twelve-tone writers as well as other composers.  In these cases the vocal part was almost pure declamation, without exact tonal designation but with rhythmic notation and general inflection indicated.

Other composers of Art Songs

Gabriel Fauré
Francis Poulenc
Gustav Mahler
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Benjamin Britten
Charles Ives
Aaron Copland
Ned Rorem