On December 15, 1822, poet Wilhelm Müller penned a gracious letter to composer Bernhard Klein after discovering Klein published two settings of his poems. He wrote, “My songs lead but a half life, a paper life of black and white…until music breathes life into them, or at least calls it forth and awakens it if it is already dormant in them.” Müller, and many other poets, were thrilled when composers turned their poems into art songs. They considered it the greatest merging of wit and beauty.
What is art song?
Art song first appeared in the 18th century as a Western compositional style. Meant for performance in private homes, it brought singers and pianists together to interpret poetry set to music. Now, art song is a multilingual genre featuring the greatest cultural diversity in classical music.
The Origins of Art Song
Art song rose to prominence along with the piano in the early 19th century. In that era, owning a piano was a status symbol in itself. But for Victorian men, providing leisure time for their wives and daughters to play the piano further elevated their position. With a piano now present in their homes, musicians presented their own in-home musical entertainment and the demand for voice and piano works increased. Towards the end of the 19th century, art song moved from the home to the stage and became a sophisticated genre of classical music.
Many artists sing art songs, but few are as revered in the genre as Dutch soprano Elly Ameling. Between 1953 and 1995, she spent her career performing concert works and lieder repertoire spanning seven languages. Ameling’s song interpretations were fueled by a curiosity about the lives of composers and poets she sang, and an interest in the subject matter of each poem. “Always, you should read their biographies. If possible, I remained longer after a concert, or arrived sooner, to see as much as I could by visiting museums. Often a text refers to ancient times or another period in Western Culture–information one has to acquaint oneself with in the best possible way.” One of Ameling’s most affecting recordings is “Die Lotosblume,” or “The Lotus Flower,” showing her gift for storytelling and sensuous command of the language. Her audience sees vividly the demure lotus flower lifting her head as she unveils herself to the moon.
The art song tradition in the United States is younger than in Europe, but American composers’ body of work is exceptional. One composer of note is Florence Price, a pioneering musical voice during the Harlem Renaissance. In 1933, she made history when she became the first African-American woman to have her music played by a major orchestra. In her over 300-piece catalog, she incorporated African American musical elements into the traditionally European compositional style, creating rich, Neo-Romantic pieces for orchestra, piano, choir, and voice. Her tender setting of “To My Little Son” is an excellent example of her gift for storytelling and text painting.
As art song grew in popularity, so did admiration for its simplicity. In recital, nothing stands between an artist and their audience, and their honest performances immerse us in new worlds with each song. We hold these artists in the highest esteem for sharing their craft with us.
To see a live recital, visit vocalartsdc.org/performances for a schedule of upcoming performances.