Like many elements in music, the term art song is hard to define and even harder to date. There are important linguistic differences when speaking about art song. If the term is directly applied to British and American song, for example, it has no real relevance in the celebrated German tradition where one talks of Lieder. The same is true in France, where the art song’s closest equivalent is mélodie rather than the romance (a genre in its own right) or chanson, which closely resembles the Spanish canción and the Italian canzone. These linguistic differences are in part essential specificities of the respective genres and, simultaneously, unifying factors in the creation of a vocal genre: the art song.
In occidental music, the medieval troubadours and minstrels were as important in establishing a vocal tradition of folk songs, which were usually sung a cappella or with a simple accompaniment and learnt by ear. They were part of an aural and oral tradition as they were rarely if ever written down and with time they often changed both verbally and musically. Folk songs had relatively simple melodies, often with only one note per syllable. The language was repetitive which allowed the words to be easily understood and remembered.
But by the mid-16th century, the time and poetry of Shakespeare’s Tudor England, the music of Dowland, Morley and, later, Purcell was integrated into forms such as madrigals, in which the text is mainly a servant of the music. This was, in many respects, the advent of the modern art song. By the end of the 18th century, the so-called First Viennese School of Haydn, Mozart and, later, Beethoven, began to develop a solo song style that often included folk-song adaptations (as in the case of Haydn and Beethoven) and musically simple, poetically somewhat naïve songs such as Mozart’s Wie unglücklich bin ich nit and Beethoven’s Maigesang and Marmotte. Yet both Mozart and Beethoven also set the German language’s foremost poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and in so doing established what was increasingly to be called Lieder.
Composers of art song usually sought to set a poem of high literary quality for solo voice with a piano part that had a largely independent and expressive dimension rather than serving merely the role of accompaniment. Though Beethoven composed one of the first “song cycles” (a set of songs set to a series of poems by the same author), An die ferne Geliebte, the composer who basically gave this new genre its lettres de noblesse was Schubert. His over 650 Lieder expanded the forms from the simply strophic (same musical framework for each poetic stanza) and modified strophic to through-composed and narrative ballads such as Erlkönig, which also demonstrated the independent, dramatic and virtuoso piano part evoking a running horse, a strategy he was to repeat in Willkommen und Abschied and Im Walde. His cycles Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise were settings of the poet Wilhelm Müller, but Schubert also set such literary giants as Goethe (who preferred the simple strophic songs of Zelter and Reichardt), Schiller and Heine to music. It was Schubert who established a benchmark as well as a new tradition.
Art song became especially popular during the Romantic era of 19th century Europe. Mendelssohn, Brahms but especially Schumann expanded the form and vocabulary of Lieder. No composer had a greater literary sense than Schumann (with the possible exception of Hugo Wolf, who set books of Lieder to the works of Goethe, Mörike and Eichendorff). Schumann also became noted for his use of piano postludes to complete a Lied (as is the case notably in his Dichterliebe).
In France, Berlioz, largely inspired by Schubert’s example, composed a wondrous song cycle, Les nuits d’été (settings of Théophile Gautier) and launched a French tradition of mélodie – an example quickly emulated by 19th century-composers such as Gounod, Bizet, Duparc and, later, Fauré. Each in his own way sought the perfect combination of music and literature, based on four elements: poet, composer, singer and accompanist. The poets were some of the great names of world literature; de Musset, Hugo, Baudelaire and Verlaine and though the musical treatment of French poetry changed with Debussy and Poulenc the desire to integrate words to music did not. La mélodie française evolved not so much out of the romance but in parallel to it. The romance, of which Berlioz and Gounod wrote notable examples, was dominated by the singer who sang a simple, somewhat naïve but affecting melody with a an equally simple piano accompaniment. The musicologist Frits Noske believed that Padre Martini’s 1784 Plaisir d’amour was the first such romance and though the genre held its own for the first half of the 19th century it was eventually “replaced” by the more musically and literarily sophisticated mélodie.
The romance was also implicit in the development of Russian art song. Such composers as Alvabyev, Varlamov and Gurilyov wrote attractive songs set to sentimental poetry. With the arrival of Glinka and Dargomjinsky (who both wrote romances) and their settings of the transforming poetry of Pushkin and, later, Lermontov, the Russian art song was born. Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and, later, Rachmaninov raised the genre to another level. Art song in English had to await the end of the 19th century for the British musical renaissance to take hold and poets such as Shakespeare but also Tennyson, Hardy and Houseman to fuel the development of this new genre. In the United States, the same degree of musical and verbal relevance was attained with MacDowell, Griffes and especially Ives. The 20th century has shown what a wealth of riches art song – no matter how it be defined and in its numerous linguistic guises – contains.