Art Song: Definition & Composers

Art Song: Definition & Composers
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  • 0:01 What Is an Art Song?
  • 0:57 Composers and Musical Examples
  • 3:19 Orchestral Accompaniment
  • 4:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

In this lesson, you'll learn about the art song and how it developed in the 19th century. Discover what makes this type of song unique and why so many composers wrote them.

What Is an Art Song?

An art song is the musical representation of a poem. It developed in 19th century Germany, where it was called lied, or song. A group of songs was known as lieder. Some composers wrote series of theme-based songs, referred to as liederkreis.

Two things happened that paved the way for the creation of the art song. First, popular German poets, such as von Goethe and Heine, wrote verses about love, the beauty of nature, and even supernatural events. During the same time, the manufacturing of pianos with an iron harp made for more expressive instruments. As a result, composers discovered they could transform the poetic images into songs and use the piano to enhance and intensify their meaning. In general, the songs were short pieces, and while many were suitable for amateurs to learn and sing at home, most were intended for trained artists to perform in a concert hall.

Composers and Musical Examples

Franz Schubert wrote over 600 lieder, many of which are still highly regarded today. One of his earliest and best examples is 'Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel,' composed in 1814 when he was only 17 years old. The scene describes a young woman at a spinning wheel anticipating the arrival of her lover. The piano accompaniment suggests the whir of the spinning wheel, as well as how much she is looking forward to seeing and kissing him again. At this moment, the music actually stops, to emphasize the depth of her emotion.

Schubert turned to an old ballad, or narrative poem or song, for writing 'Elf King' in 1815. His version is based upon a legend in which whatever unfortunate person touched the king of the elves had to die. The 'Elf King' takes place at night, where we find a father riding his horse and carrying his child in his arms. The piano accompaniment conveys the feel of the galloping figure horse, as well as the panic experienced by the father and his son because the Elf King wants to take the little boy. In Schubert's composition, the singer must portray four characters: the narrator, the father, the child, and the Elf King. Sadly, this supernatural story ends with the little boy dying in his father's arms.

In 'The Trout,' created in 1817, Schubert uses the piano to conjure up the image of a rustling brook. The story is about a fisherman who is not having good luck. In his frustration, he muddies the water in order to capture an elusive fish. Schubert changes the music to a minor key to make this moment stand out.

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