Arts Blog

What is Art Song?

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.

Classical Lieder

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) was one of the first composers to explore the expressive capabilities of the Lied [singular of Lieder, pronounced “leet”]. Many of Mozart’s Lieder were composed for the growing domestic song market. His Lieder offer the same natural vocal writing he brought to opera – and the same wide-ranging dramatic sense. For example, his “Abendemfindung” (Evening Thoughts) is a tender reflection on mortality; in contrast, his “Das Veilchen” K. 476 (The Violet) is a playful, rather snarky setting of a poem by Goethe about a dramatic violet’s tragic love for an oblivious shepherdess.

Other Classical composers who wrote in the burgeoning Lied genre include Louise Reichardt,  Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven, who invented the song cycle (more on that next!).

“Das Veilchen” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Song Text

Schubert and the Song Cycle

In 1816, Ludwig van Beethoven had the idea of writing a set of six Lieder with an overarching narrative: his An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved). This new genre came to be known as a Liederkries, or in English, a song cycle. Some song cycles tell a story, some have a common theme, and some are merely meant to be sung in a series for aesthetic reasons. They’re a bit like the 19th century’s version of the record album. 

Franz Schubert (1797–1828) was a master of the Lied. He composed more than 900 Lieder, many of which had their premieres at musical home gatherings which Schubert’s friends delightfully called Schubertiades. Schubert perfected the song cycle in works like his narrative cycle Die schöne Müllerin (The Beautiful Miller Maid), as well as cycles linked by a common author, like his Op.52 settings from Sir Walther Scott’s Lady of the Lake. Perhaps his greatest song cycle is Winterreise D. 911 (Winter Journey), a psychologically profound exploration of loss.

“Gute Nacht” from Winterreise by Franz Schubert

Song Text

The Romantic Lied

As the 19th century progress, composers like Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Hugo Wolf added increasingly sophisticated song cycles and individual Lieder to the repertoire. Many Lieder became increasingly complex for the average home musician: the solo recital was becoming a popular style of performance, thanks to Franz Liszt, who invented the term, and composers were writing for the skills of professional recitalists as well as for amateurs.

However, the Lied was still an entrenched home music genre, and that gave a special edge to women composers in the 19th century. Many women who wrote symphonic music or chamber music in the Romantic period struggled to promote interest in their work, but since the Lied was considered a domestic genre, women faced fewer barriers to be accepted as composers of art song.

Women took advantage of this creative outlet to produce glorious art songs, many of which differ from the male-composed repertoire by examining love and life from a woman’s perspective. Some notable composers include Josephine Lang, Clara Schumann, and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805–1847), whose “Warum sind den die Rosen so blass” is an elegant example of the Romantic Lied.

“Warum sind denn die Rosen so blass” Op. 1 No. 3 by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel

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French Art Song: Mélodie

German-speaking composers did much of the early work developing the art song genre, but it spread among composers of many languages. For example, French art song is known as mélodie. Countless French composers made gorgeous additions to the genre through the 19th century and beyond, including Pauline Viardot, Henri Duparc, Ernest Chausson, Cécile Chaminade, and Claude Debussy. 

If we were to crown a French Schubert, whose stature in mélodie resembles that of Schubert in Lieder, it might be Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924). Fauré composed more than 100 art songs, including both individual songs and song cycles. His masterful, text-sensitive writing for both voice and piano make his art songs perennially popular with singers.

“Clair de Lune,” Op. 46 No. 2 by Gabriel Fauré

Song Text 

Orchestral Songs

Traditionally, art song is scored for voice and piano, but music genre rules have never been set in stone, especially during the experimental Romantic period. One early Lied-scoring exception is Schubert’s “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen D.965 (The Shepherd on the Rock), which is scored for voice, piano, and clarinet.

In the mid-1800s, orchestral songs began to grace the concert stage. Unlike opera or oratorio arias, these songs were not intended as part of a larger ensemble work, but were simply standalone art songs or song cycles using orchestral accompaniment instead of piano. 

An early example of Romantic orchestral song was Hector Berlioz’s orchestration of his song cycle Les nuits d’ete Op. 7 (Summer Nights, pub. 1856). Many Romantic composers contributed to the genre of orchestral song, especially in the form of orchestral song cycles. Examples include Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder and Alma Mahler-Werfel’s Four Songs for Soprano and Orchestra (1915).

Perhaps the best-known composer of Romantic orchestral Lieder was Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), whose orchestral song cycles remain staples of the repertory. His Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn, pub. 1905) consists of orchestral songs for mezzo soprano and baritone. The texts are German folk poems that range from dark musings, to cynical allegories, to charming fairy tales. 

“Wo die Schönen Trompeten blasen” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn by Gustav Mahler

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The 20th Century and Art Song in English

Around the same time that German composers were diving into orchestral Lieder, English speaking composers were starting to give special attention to art song. The rhapsodic songs of George Butterworth and Ivor Gurney helped singers give voice to the trauma surrounding the First World War. Ethel Smyth, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten and many other English composers contributed to the 20th century’s flowering of English song.

English-language art song flourished in the United States as well, in the works of composers like Amy Beach, Aaron Copland, and Samuel Barber. Folk song inspired many American composers of art song, including Harry T. Burleigh and John Jacob Niles.

One remarkable partnership in American art song was that between poet Langston Hughes and composer Florence Price (1887–1953). Both were pivotal figures in the Chicago Renaissance, and Price set Hughes’s poetry in several masterful art songs, which were championed by Leontyne Price, Marian Anderson and other great Black singers.

“Songs to the Dark Virgin” (1941) by Florence Price

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Contemporary Art Song

The art song genre continues to flourish in the works of recent and contemporary composers: to name just a few, Adolphus Hailstork, Jennifer Higdon, Kim Dong Jin, Libby Larsen, Morten Lauridsen, Yoshinao Nakada, and Rhian Samuel.

In fact, there’s such a wealth of art song by contemporary composers that I could never choose one favorite to end this list. Let’s keep things local with a gorgeous song by Portland-based composer and conductor Joan Szymko (b. 1957). Her “Eli, eli,” is an example of the art song genre’s continual transformation. Scored for solo voice accompanied by solo cello, “Eli, eli” is a setting (in both Hebrew and English) of a moving prayer by Hannah Szenes, a poet and resistance fighter who was executed by the Nazis in 1944.

“Eli, eli” (1994) by Joan Szymko

Song Text

For Further Reading

Art song is a rich and vibrant genre, and we’ve only scratched the surface in this article. Below are some resources to continue learning. Another wonderful way to experience art song is to attend university vocal recitals: they’re usually free, full of repertoire you’d rarely hear in a concert hall, and an excellent way to support the next generation of singers.

The Art Song Project:

Hampsong Foundation:

Johnson, Graham, and Richard Stokes. A French Song Companion. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Kimball, Carol. Song: A Guide to Art Song Style and LiteratureMilwaukee, Wisconsin: Hal Leonard, 2006.

Olson, Margaret. Listening to Art Song: An IntroductionUnited Kingdom: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

Oxford Lieder:

Simmons, Margaret R., and Jeanine Wagner. A New Anthology of Art Songs by African American ComposersUnited Kingdom: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004.

Stokes, Richard, and Ian Bostridge. The Book of LiederUnited Kingdom: Faber & Faber, 2011.

Special thanks to Arwen Myers of Northwest Art Song for her insightful research advice.

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