What is art song?

An art song is a vocal music composition, usually written for one voice with piano accompaniment, and usually in the classical tradition.  By extension, the term "art song" is used to refer to the genre of such songs.   An art song is most often a musical setting of an independent poem or text, intended for the concert repertory as part of a recital or other occasion.

Intriguing!  Tell me more.

Art song comes from all corners of the earth, without there being a definitive country of origin.  The modern art song began to develop during the mid- to late sixteenth century as concern for textual interpretation grew.  In other words, performers began to place more importance on having an obvious emotional and musical reaction to the texts they were singing.  The genre has never stopped developing since, and continues to be a living, breathing art form to this day.

We typically refer to art songs from specific countries by that country's native word for "song."  Below is a short list of examples:

  • Italian canzione
  • Spanish canción
  • German Lieder
  • French mélodie

What isn't art song?

Art song is separate from music for the theater, such as operas or musicals.  Folk songs are a separate genre as well, although many composers arrange such songs with piano accompaniment for the concert stage.  For example, Aaron Copland's Old American Songs, Benjamin Britten's Folk Song arrangements, and the Siete canciones populares españolas (Seven Spanish Folk Songs) by Manuel de Falla are all considered art songs because of their intended use for recital settings.  Additionally, songs set to biblical or sacred texts intended for religious services are not art songs, but those written for the concert stage are.  An example is Johannes Brahms' monumental cycle Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs), which is based on biblical texts and intended for the concert stage, thus deeming it art song.

In other words...

An art song strives to be the perfect combination of music and literature, based on four elements: poet, composer, singer and accompanist. The composer uses the full resources of the art form to embellish the poet’s text, sometimes even realizing potential interpretations that were not explicit in the poet’s words. In well-realized art song, the composer creates a duet between the accompanist and the vocalist. That is, the art song paints for us a picture of what the poet might have envisioned. The performance of an art song literally breathes life into this picture through a complementary, coordinated partnership among the four significant elements.
— Artsong Update

Give me an example!

"Animal Passion" is an American art song composed by Jake Heggie, set to poetry by Gini Savage.  Nicolle Foland sings in this recording, with the composer himself at the piano.  Do you think the music and the performers' interpretation matches the feisty nature of the poetry?