Schwind: Schubertiade

Art Song: Chamber Music Made Personal

The act of song is primordial and ubiquitous. In the view of famed biologist E.O. Wilson, author of groundbreaking studies on the genetic basis of social behaviors, the artistic impulse to communicate the “intricate details of human experience” by combining melody, rhythm, and words “rises from the artesian wells of human nature.” Indeed, we know that in all ancient cultures, song embedded itself into aspects of both everyday and communal life, as it has done throughout the ages and continues to do so in our own lives. The diversity of song types, styles, and functions is vast and constantly evolving. As individuals and communities, we seek out and create songs to meet our every needs. What, then, distinguishes “art song” from the myriad other manifestations of song? Primarily, art song is the fusion of two independent art forms, poetry and music, in the form of a collaboration between solo singer and pianist. 

Situational Sensitivity to Words

Art song arose and was cultivated in the Romantic era, when poetry came to be regarded as the primary representation of the human spirit, and music the art most immediately expressive of spirit and emotion. Of course, for many centuries prior, texts of various kinds had been set to music, almost always for some specific purpose that required situational sensitivity to the words: devotional for religious texts, dramatic for operatic texts, political for ceremonial texts, intelligibility and clarity for narrative and comic texts. In art song, however, the composer appropriates a pre-existing work of literary art that stands on its own and was not intended as the basis for song. Any poem by any poet, even from a distant era, may serve – all that is required is the composer’s inspiration by its expressive content.

The emergence of song as high art is among the most remarkable cultural phenomena of the early 19th century… the catalysts which make the songs of Schubert and his contemporaries and immediate successors appear virtually a new genre are Romantic lyric poetry, an interest in popular culture including folksong, and a developed style of accompaniment for the piano, closely reflecting the mechanical reliability, increased range, and enhanced dynamic and expressive potential of the instrument itself.
Julian Rushton
Brahms Vier Lieder Title Page

The most famous earliest art song tradition is the German Lied, exemplified by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Strauss, Mahler, and many others. Influenced by the songs of Schubert, the French mélodie emerged later, in the work of Berlioz, Fauré, Duparc, Debussy, and Poulenc, to name a few. There are also important bodies of English, Spanish, Russian, Scandinavian, and Eastern European songs. The American song tradition began in the later 19th century. Following the early progenitors, Amy Beach, John Alden Carpenter, Charles Ives, and H.T. Burleigh, and the next generation of Aaron Copland, John Duke, and Samuel Barber, the American song soundscape today is more vital and diverse than ever, with composers such as William Bolcom, Errollyn Wallen, Libby Larsen, Jake Heggie, and H. Leslie Adams.

Recreating the Poem

When composers approach a poetic text, they are interpreting it, responding in their own ways to the sound and rhythm of the words and the ideas and intentions they suggest. The imagery, thoughts, and feelings that the composer chooses to call attention to through the musical setting, the pianistic and the vocal features essentially recreate the poem.” Different composers bring different sensibilities and priorities to this task, even when reading the same poem, and the musical results will also diverge. Thus, there is no inevitable or correct way to set a poem because poetry does not possess fixed meaning.

Kristina Bachrach performing songs of Augusta Read Thomas

It then lies with the performers to bring to life and communicate the stories of the human spirits who populate the art song without scenery, costumes, or other distractions. The energy between singer and pianist makes words and music convey their own interpretations and brings emotional and psychological truth to the characters they are presenting. It envelops the audience, creating a space that allows performers and listeners to respond to each other and connect. It is this exchange between performers and listeners that makes the art song recital a quintessential chamber music experience. Thanks to the intimacy between performers and listeners and the sensitive acoustics of our space, the art song finds a welcome home in Guarneri Hall.

Alchemy Between Music and Poetry

Der Erlkönig Autograph Manuscript (1815)
Der Erlkönig, F. Schubert-Autograph Manuscript

Art song is a powerful medium for expression because of this alchemy between music and poetry. Words and music are not just added together; an art song is a new entity that is more than the sum of the two parts. The poem can still be read or spoken without the music; the music can stand alone without the poem. In combination, poetry loses its form and structure, while music sacrifices its independence to be directed by the text. Compensating for these “losses,” the art song revels in verbal and musical imagery and luxuriates in vocal and pianistic color. It is universally agreed among audiences, writers, composers, performers, and scholars that when words and music come together through the expressive power of the human voice in collaboration with the textures and capabilities of the piano, they interact in an almost magical fashion to enhance and crystallize deeper levels of meaning in the listener’s imagination. 

Mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Willams and pianist Natalia Kazaryan present a program of American art songs in “Reflections: Voices of the Underrepresented” at Guarneri Hall on October 3, 2023. True to the spirit of the art song’s Romantic roots, Ms. Williams and Ms. Kazaryan embody the struggles and triumphs of the human spirit, sharing experiences and truths that are relevant to all performers and listeners. This is chamber music made personal.

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