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What is art song?

What is Art Song?

The musical genre of “Art Song” is broadly defined as poetry set to composed music, using classical instruments and voices. It is a broad category because poems vary in form, subject matter, language and style. And the composer, trying to enhance the poem’s meaning and emotion, can do almost anything. There are few rules and so there are all kinds of art songs. Poems and music come in all shapes and sizes, and so do art songs.

In this blog, I will be sharing art songs with you. My goal is share an art form that I find fulfilling to perform and to teach. The songs span hundreds of years of culture, history, language and peoples. In each instance I think we are given a unique view of the world through someone else’s eyes and ears and language. Opening ourselves up to that view gives us insight, comfort and perspective into being alive now.

But, still. What is it? What does it sound like?

Art song happens when some musical person feels inspired to sing a poem rather than speak it. Composing one is very similar to what a song-writer does, but instead of dreaming up your own lyrics, the composer uses existing poetry (or not, as you'll see below!). To create an art song, our musical person would spend time studying the poem to find what it means to her, what the structure is, and where the beats, lifts and pauses of the poem are. Then, she would choose a melody and a key and instruments to accompany the voice. With those tools, the composer uses music to evoke feelings she found in the poem. The music might be quick, slow, angry, grateful or alternate between emotions, adjusting to support the meaning of the words. In the end, she has created a new piece of art: an “art song”.

Every culture on earth expresses itself musically, in so many ways. We use it in celebration, mourning, prayer, meditation and medicine. My western European tradition separates popular culture from art culture, but it is a blurry, messy and wonderful boundary in which to explore. It encompasses every mood, situation and story you can imagine. Unlike popular music, there is no formula to follow in composition, so it is difficult to define. Art songs can be a mix of whatever styles, moods and forms suit the composer’s idea of the poem. If a poem is celebratory, the song likely is, too. Mournful. Anxious. Homesick. Bitter. Whatever the mood, the song invites you to savor it.

I have posted here a set of songs composed by my husband as an example. It works because this is a contemporary person you can follow through his process. And I bet you thought this only took place in 19th Century Germany or France.

Our example: Larry knew he wanted to write something for us to perform together, and he used the standard pairing of solo voice and piano. For the poems, he went to the oldest stacks in the UCLA Library and found text books on astronomy, law and physics. He hunted for interesting uses of language and built some poems that make us question and rethink older speech conventions. Then he began speaking the poems to find their rhythms and meanings. As a life-long jazz musician, it was not too difficult to begin improvising at the piano for sounds to express his feelings, and he began writing down phrases and tying things together. Viola!

It was a fun process where he made fun of academia and its self-importance. I hope you enjoy.

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