Song as the spontaneous melodic expression of one's feelings is as old as man. Great composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven wrote songs which are considered masterpieces. But the art song as we know it today began with Franz Schubert, whose extraordinary compositions for one voice and piano along with his prodigious song output revolutionized the German Lied at the turn of the 19th century (see Schubert and Lieder). Thus a new intimate genre of short works - romantic miniatures - was born, which in its union of poetry and music, distilled the essence of the romantic spirit.

In the art song, the pianist becomes equal partner to the singer, not a mere accompanist. Although composers of Lieder may decide to orchestrate the music (as Richard Strauss did in his Four Last Songs), the essence of the art song remained unchanged: poetry of some literary distinction set to beautiful music which enhances the poem in a very unique way. Some songs may be strophic, in which a tune is repeated for each stanza (in the manner of church hymns); or through-composed (or durchkomponiert) in which there are different musical settings for each stanza, usually adding more drama to the song. Schubert used both to good effect in his song cycle Die schöne Müllerin (CLICK BELOW for an example of each.).

Das Wandern
Der Müller und Bach
The miller and the stream

The art song flourished well into the Romantic era and on to the early 20th century, becoming popular outside the Germanic countries as well. It is a living musical language that draws on the contemporary traditions of poetry and song of each country. In Germany and Austria where the influence of folk song is exceptionally strong, Lieder often tell a story through melody and chromatic harmony. Robert Schumann (1810-1856) and after him Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) are considered the legitimate heirs to Schubert, but Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), Richard Wagner (1813-1883), Franz Liszt (1811-1886) - who is Hungarian by birth but (to his dying day) spent half of his life in Germany, Hugo Wolf (1860-1903), Richard Strauss (1864-1949), Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951), and Alban Berg (1885-1935) also contributed to the body of Lieder that make up today's song recital repertoire.

In France art songs are known as mélodies. Unlike Lieder, they are more atmospheric than narrative, derived more from the romance of the period than from folk traditions. Among the French composers of mélodies (as opposed to the other word for song, the simpler, more popular, and usually folk-inspired chanson) are Hector Berlioz (1803-8169), Charles Gounod (1818-1893), Jules Massenet (1842-1912), Claude Debussy (1862-1918), Gabriel Fauré (1825-1924), Henri Duparc (1848-1933), Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947), and (Francis Poulenc (1899-1963).

There is also a"Russian School" of song, and among its major composers are: Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) who is considered its founding father, Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881), Alexander Borodin (1833-1887), Rimsky-Korsakov (1884-1908), Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), and Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943).

In England, Ralph Vaughn Williams (1872-1958) and Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) are among the major composers who carried on the tradition of the art song.

Today, the art song is alive and well in America. The composer Charles Ives (1874-1954) left a rich legacy of songs which, along with the works of contemporary composers such as Ned Rorem and the young Jake Heggie, are gaining a following among modern audiences, thanks to the emergence of outstanding American opera singers in the late 20th century who have enthusiastically embraced the songs of these composers making them an important part of their recital repertoires.


A composer may group his songs into cycles, such as when a narrative or a common idea, emotion, or theme runs through the songs, forming a dramatic unity. In An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant Beloved) Beethoven took song to a new level; it is thus considered the first important song cycle, although it is sometimes referred to as a "song cycle in embryo" perhaps because the poetry is trite, and because Schubert took song to even greater heights. But it is definitely the immediate precursor to Schubert's two song cycles, both masterpieces: Die schöne Müllerin written in 1823 when he became seriously ill and whose tragic ending foreshadowed the despondency of Winterreise (Winter Journey), composed in 1827 before the year of his death.
Below are some of the song cycles of the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of which are part of today's recital/concert repertoire:

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant Beloved)
Franz Schubert
Die schöne Müllerin (The Fair Maid of the Mill)
(Winter Journey)
Schwanengesang (Swan Song Cycle - a group of songs assembled after his death)
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) Dichterliebe (Poet's Love)
Frauenliebe und Leben (A Woman's Love and Life)
Liederkreis (Song Cycle)
Johannes Brahms
Die schöne Magelone (The Beautiful Magelone)
Richard Wagner (1813-1883) Wesendonck Lieder (Wesendonck Songs)
Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) Mörike Lieder (Songs on poems by Mörike)
Italienisches Liederbuch
(Italian Book of Songs)
Spanisches Liederbuch (Spanish Book of Songs)
Richard Strauss (1864-1949) Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs)
Krämerspiegel (Shopkeeper's Mirror)
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer)
Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Deaths of Children)
Rückert-Lieder (Songs on Poems by Rückert)
Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn)
Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951) Pierrot Lunaire
Das Buch der haengenden Gaertner
(The Book of Hanging Gardens)
Alban Berg (1885-1935) Seven Early Songs
Altenberg Lieder
Hector Berlioz
Nuits d'ete (Summer Nights)
Charles Gounod
Biondina, poème musical
Jules Massenet
Poëme d’Avril
Poëme Pastoral
Poëme du Souvenir
Poëme d’Amour
Poëme d’Hiver
Poëme d’un Soir, and
Quelques Chansons Mauves
Expressions Lyriques
Claude Debussy
Ariettes Oubliées
Chansons de Bilitis
Cinq Poèmes de Baudelaire
Deux Romances
Fêtes Galantes
Le promenoir des deux amants
L'enfant prodigue
Proses Lyriques
Trois Ballades de François Villon
Trois Chansons de Charles d'Orléans
Trois Chansons de France
Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé
Gabriel Fauré
La bonne chanson
La chanson d'Eve
Cinq mélodies "de Venise"
L'horizon chimérique
Le jardin clos
Maurice Ravel
Chansons madécasses
Cinq Mélodies Populaires Grecques (Five Popular Greek Melodies)
Don Quichotte à Dulcinée
Épigrammes de Clément Marot
Histoires naturelles
Trois chansons
Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé
Reynaldo Hahn
Chansons grises
Douze rondels
Études Latines
Five Little Songs
Les feuilles blessées
Love without wings
Francis Poulenc
Airs chantés
Calligrammes Chansons villageoises
Cinq Poèmes de Max Jacob
Cinq Poèmes de Paul Éluard
Deux Mélodies
Deux Mélodies de Guillaume Apollinaire
Deux Mélodies inédites du Bestiaire
Deux Mélodies sur des poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire
Deux poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire
Deux Poèmes de Louis Aragon
Fiançailles pour rire
Huit Chansons françaises
La Courte Paille La Fraîcheur et le feu
La Travail du peintre
Le bal masqué: Cantate Profane
Le Bestiaire
Miroirs brûlants
Osiem pies'ni polskich
Poèmes de Ronsard
Quatre Chansons pour Enfants
Trois Poèmes de Louise Lalanne

One must not get the mistaken idea that song cycles belong to a distant past. Today, living contemporary composers of "serious music" continue to write song cycles. Very well. Then, do song cycles exist only in the realm of "serious music?" one might ask. If one remembers that song is a living musical language that draws on the culture of the times, and if one agrees that there is a common theme or emotion that runs through the songs in such popular record albums as the Beatles'Abbey Road or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, or in Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life, or Billy Joel's The Stranger, then the answer is "Definitely not!" Clearly, song cycles exist in "pop" as they do in "serious music" - a connection, no matter how tenuous, that perhaps could begin to bridge the seeming chasm between the two genres. -GCajipe © FanFaire



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