How to get started with Classical Art Song
Updated: Oct 13, 2022
What on earth is "art song"? Well, I'm here to give you a quick overview and to direct you to some starting points!
In the Western classical music tradition, an art song is a vocal composition - usually for one voice and piano, and usually including a sung text (often a stand-alone poem). Art songs can be individual songs, or can be part of a song cycle (a group of songs designed for performance as a set). Art songs and cycles are usually carefully selected to form a cohesive programme and performed in classical vocal recitals and concerts.
The texts may be in a variety of languages, or sometimes there is no text (such as in the case of a wordless vocalise). The most common art song categories are the German Lied and French mélodie. Art songs in English (British and American art songs in particular), Spanish, Italian, Russian, and other major European languages are also quite common. Art songs with texts written in other languages and dialects (both European and non-European, including indigenous languages) are now performed and composed more frequently. Classical song is being explored as a vehicle for helping to preserve endangered languages.
Art song instrumentation can vary - there may be one voice or several. Most often, art songs are a "duet" between voice and piano. However, they may also be unaccompanied, or include one or more other instruments: a solo instrument, such as the oboe in Ralph Vaughan-Williams' "Ten Blake Songs", a chamber music grouping (Ottorino Respighi: "Il tramonto"), or indigenous instruments like the New Zealand taonga pūoro instruments (Gillian Whitehead: “Te ao mārama").
Some art songs are intended to be sung by a particular voice type or tessitura (how high or low the voice sits). However, many are available in at least "high" and "low" voice versions, and some in multiple different keys. This means that a large number of art songs are able to be sung by singers of any voice type!
Today, many artists are interested in exploring the performance of classic works in less traditional ways (usually with respect to the works and composers!). For example, some works are traditionally performed exclusively by men (example: Schubert's "Die schöne Müllerin" song cycle) or women (example: Schumann's "Frauenliebe und -leben" song cycle), but singers of all voice types now perform them. Other ways in which non-traditional territory is being explored by performers include performing works in unique locations, combining art song with other art forms, or "staging" the works with costumes, sets, and more.
In the next section, you'll find some art song selections to get you started, listed by language! Interested in discovering more? Book a Classical Music Immersion session with me, with a focus on classical art song! Lessons can be combined with singing lessons if desired.
Voice/piano art songs
Johannes Brahms: Von ewiger Liebe (Of Eternal Love) (from 4 Gesänge, op. 43: Nr 1)
Franz Schubert: Erlkönig (The Erlking)
Robert Schumann: Widmung (Dedication) (from Myrthen, op. 25: No. 1)
Claude Debussy: Beau soir (Beautiful Night)
Gabriel Fauré: Apres un rêve (After a dream) (from 3 mélodies, Op.7: No.1)
Reynaldo Hahn: L'heure exquise (The exquisite hour) (from Chansons grises: No. 5)
English art song
(American) Samuel Barber: Sure on this shining night (from Four Songs, Op.13: No. 3)
(British) Ivor Gurney: Sleep (from Five Elizabethan Songs: No. 4)
(British) Roger Quilter: Love's Philosophy (from 3 Songs, Op. 3: No. 1)
Spanish - Manuel de Falla: El Paño moruno (The Moorish cloth) (from Siete Canciones populares españolas: No. 1)
Russian - Sergei Rachmaninoff: Вчера мы встретились (Vchera my vstretilis′ ) (When Yesterday We Met) (from 15 Romances, Op. 26: No. 13)
Korean - Kim Sun Nam: Sanyuhwa 산유화 (Wild flowers of the mountain)
Uyghur - Zubaida Azezi & Edo Frenkel: Ananurhan