Today we call them art songs, but when this specific genre first appeared in the late 18th century, they were simply “songs,” nearly always scored for what is now a classic combination: piano and voice. At the time, the Industrial Revolution was helping to create a new class of music lovers. The new Middle Class was wealthy enough to want access to musical entertainment at home, but not wealthy enough to hire live-in court musicians like the aristocratic classes. What they could afford was the perfect new domestic instrument: the piano.
The ability to play the piano and sing became a status symbol for middle and upper middle class families, especially among women (as you might know from the novels of Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters). This made home music a lucrative market for composers. The earliest Lieder [pronounced “leader”], or German art songs, were written for voice and simple piano accompaniment, so that home musicians could accompany themselves or their friends at the piano.
Throughout the 19th century, the genre of art song developed into a sophisticated art form for the concert stage as well as for the home. However, in one sense, it’s never abandoned its domestic beginnings: most art songs are still scored for voice and piano. In this post, we’ll take a lightning tour of art song history, featuring a few of the countless great works in this genre. In addition to the videos, click on the text links to listen to a few more art songs.