On Art Songs


On Art Songs

Some Thoughts




As a singer and a composer and from student to master, I have confronted, dealt with, and traded in art songs as a genre unto itself. In my life, well known practitioners have seemed to have been relatively few, as if earlier generations had greater enthusiasm for the form. In fact, I think this a misperception, for the devotees of art songs, especially among the amateur ranks of fine musicians, is larger than we see.


In the history of Western music, of course art songs gained greatest favor on the 18th and 19th centuries. The German term, Lied, means merely "song," though the modern connotation is intended to suggest a genre. What of these songs?


It is obvious that texts come first, and one finds such a confession in the writings of many composers over centuries. For without the text, there is no reason for an art song to be created initially. In song, the composer suggests a "line reading." This is the parlance of stage to a singer and pianist, and as such a line reading acts much as stage directors do, pointing the way -- one among several possible -- towards enlivening the song from page to performance. 


Certainly, contrary to the silliness of some modern musical ideologues, composers require performers not only to perform their works, but to interact with them, develop them, find insights into them and impact them by the force of the individual personality of that performer. Among the twentieth century giants who taught this truth were both Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and as such it seems consensus without argument. At least without argument from me.


Often the texts of art songs are essentially libretti, tiny perhaps but often encompassing large themes. The themes are spoken of in the texts of poets, and the setting and character(s) of each should be clearly imagined and played by the performer. It is in the individual's relationship to the human experience embodied in a single text that the value of the performance must lie.




A favored poet of mine, whose texts I have set as much as any, is E. E. Cummings. Perhaps an unhappy man in his interpersonal life, his work is nonetheless interesting and unique. Cummings offers an insight to the individuality of the performer -- though that was not his purpose in "A Poet's Advice." He suggests:

"Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you're a lot of other people; but the moment you feel, you're nobody-but-yourself.

"To be nobody-but-yourself -- in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else - means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting."

Intended for young poets, the advice is apt for singers of songs and their accompanists as for composers of songs. 


There are many fine books about art songs, such as by Pierre Bernac and Gerald Moore, and yet something is missing in these books about art song interpretation. Cummings fills in the missing ingredient: nobody-but-yourself. As admired as are these books on art song and interpretation, the individual composer and individual performer must inject himself into the song, the choices which underpin an interpretation and, in performance, the act of taking stage. Art songs are little operas, even when as brief as are haiku compared to epic poetry.


Much is negotiable in an art song, in a way closed to larger forms such as oratorios and opera. It hinges on individuality. 




Many years ago, I happened to hear a recital of Tchaikovsky at Carnegie Hall, given by Galina Vishnevskaya accompanied by her husband, Mistislav Rostropovich. One song which I was sure I knew well begins in a 12/8 meter. I thought I knew the range of effective tempi with certainty for this particular song. I was wrong. Exceedingly wrong. These two individual performers began at half the tempo I had expected, and carried the now excessively long lines of the vocal line and accompaniment with a marvelous tension throughout. I was later unable to reproduce this, and the written score does not indicate this as a reasonable option. It was. But why?


It was not a matter of tempo. It was a matter of the relationship of the performers to the text as they understood it at that moment in their lives. The text is first. Wagner the librettist tells us this, as have composers before him, as have composers after him.




But what does it mean -- the text? Words in of themselves mean little, as politics and law prove daily, turning them on their heads like Carroll's Humpty Dumpty who said, "The question is, which is to be the master - that's all." 


All the deep studies in semiotics return us to a prime, which underlies words. That prime is human experience, charged with its emotion and irrationality alongside the conscious and rational. Poetic words serve so well to uncover this, and music heightens that denuding of the prime experience which underpins both arts -- poetry and music.


The master, in contradistinction to the nonsense of Humpty Dumpty, is the prime experience itself, wholly individual and yet wholly shared in our humanity.


A master student of drama informs us of this:

"I would enumerate the ties of friendship or kinship possible between the characters; I would determine also their degree on consciousness, of free-will and knowledge of the real end toward which they were moving. And we have seen that when it is desired to alter the normal degree of discernment in one of the two adversaries, the introduction of a second character is necessary, the first becoming the blind instrument of the second, who is at the same time invested with a Machiavellian subtlety, to such an extent does his part in the action become purely intellectual. Thus, clear perception being in the one case excessively diminished, it is, in the other, proportionately increased." [ 1 ]

Thus does Georges Polti remind that "the ties of friendship or kinship" lie in our human experiences, reactions and memories of events. Abiding ties or ruptured bonds, these are the substances which speak out from behind the texts, and which sing their way into the enactment of roles, whether in the grandest of opera or the smallest of songs.


To confront a text, therefore, is a matter of finding the resonance between the prime experience which underpins that text and a similar prime experience which we find in ourselves. Without that, an art song is only a bit of pretty writing or singing, at best. With it, an art song is enlightenment.


The inane ideological "liberation" of the note from the diatonic scale which paralleled the development of surrealism in the plastic arts has contributed to our losing our way in these "ties of friendship or kinship." Referring to surrealism, Orwell taught us that it was "a deliberate raid on the unconscious."  [ 2 ] 


I extend it to the blind allies which some modern musical "isms" have brought the art of song, for, without ties of "kinship" as Polti might say, the resonance of shared yet prime experiences is lost. Art is not about losing sight of that resonance.


The simple orthodoxies of modern atonality and surrealism make for that world of which Cummings spoke, "which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else." Just so for feminist or deconstructionist readings of Western music. An ideology about music or song or social relationships cannot come first, for they divide one from another. What must come first is that which unites, rather than divides, us.


Many young composers are urged to find their own voices, all the while being fit into a mold of a certain kind of musical orthodoxy, and this is especially true for composing the art song. Whether employing tonality or atonality, the issue is not the ideological use of the aural material, but the effective use of it and the texts to tell the tale, to reinforce and deepen the drama of the "ties of friendship or kinship." Similarly, many young singers and pianists are asked to interpret a song and text in the manner of a teacher or coach. Better to encourage the "nobody-but-yourself."


In not doing so, no musicological or ideological stance has merit. 




How then to judge the composer's work? The performers' work? By the individuality of it, and how a composer's individual "line reading" illustrates the text, and how a singer's and pianist's individual performances illustrate both the poet's and composer's intent, and how all -- the poet, the composer and the performers -- unite to serve, to expose and to revisit that underlying prime experience which is common to us all.


The charisma-free performance, no matter how well sculpted, is uninteresting. Comparatively, the passion-filled performance has the greatest chance to seduce an audience into identification with that shared experience of human realities.


A case in point is Schubert's setting of the "Erlkönig." The common experience is not the death of the child, nor the riding through a wood being chased by an apparition, real or imagined. The underlying reality is the sense of fear, inevitability and conclusion, as tension moves to release. The story, one of the thirty-six, is common to us all, as Polti reminds. 


Similarly, my setting of Brentano's "Lore Lay" has its characters and situations, but these similarities on the face of it are not akin to the "Erlkönig." Instead, "Lore Lay" is a story ballad, a fairy tale in which the mystery and perhaps even humor of the story is nowhere akin to "Erlkönig." Yet each dissimilar text and setting is underpinned by the same structure, though with varying prime experiences. The success of poems, settings and performances is wholly a matter for those who best illustrate the human experience.


There is a concept within rabbinic Judaism which suggests that prayer needs a body (guf) and soul (neshama). The body is the word, but the soul is the melody. This perspective is not limited to Judaism, but found within all the world's great religions. Furthermore, the soul of music accompanies political movements, social convocations and even sports. 


Just as in the basic emotions which theater has demonstrated can be seen onstage, and just as with the limited number of story structures as shown by theorists like Polti, there are a few colors which composers can portray and with which performers can play. Misrepresent them, and perhaps irony might be demonstrated, but represent them with some clarity, and the song becomes another window to the world, through which we might see ourselves more clearly.


Humpty Dumpty was wrong, as Lewis Carroll intended him to be, and in the end it is he who falls from the wall. Who is to be master? The word? The music? The composer or performer? None of them. None of us.


The master of song has always been and will always be the underlying emotional truth of the individual situation. 


Touch that deep spring of truth, and the song is successful. There are thirty six structures of truth from which to choose, and innumerable ways in which to tell these truths. For this, new settings of poems already set are yet to be composed, and new nuances in their readings are yet to be performed.


Only by this does one find one's own voice, and in doing so will that individual speak the truth to all men through his art. 


G. K. Chesterton reminds us:

"...[it] is perfectly obvious that in any decent occupation (such as bricklaying or writing books) there are only two ways (in any special sense) of succeeding. One is by doing very good work, the other is by cheating. Both are much too simple to require any literary explanation." [ 3 ]



Therefore, we need little to support such conclusions. From Cummings' words, we can restate the argument. 

"The poems to come are for you and for me and are not for mostpeople -- it's no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike. Mostpeople have nothing in common with ourselves than the squarerootof-minusone. You and I are human beings;most people are snobs." [The spellings are Cummings'.]   [ 4 ]

This quote might be misconstrued. Poems are not for, as Cummings unites the words insightfully, "mostpeople." In that he is correct. Devotees of poetry are likely in the minority worldwide, if one counts sales of poetry books. Just so, art songs are not for "mostpeople." But Cummings' notion that "mostpeople" have nothing in common with us is a polemical complaint that his art and craft were perhaps not as popular as he would have liked.


Cummings' expects his readers to share common underlying experiences, meanings and connotations of words rooted in shared consensus, and appreciate his typographical craft and humor. Without these, we are not human beings. While "snobs," in Cummings' view, would not care for his art, that is a parochial perspective. For that perspective and rancor, a dedication in one of his anthologies, No Thanks, lists all the mainstream publishers who had rejected his submissions. For Cummings, that was evidence of snobbery. In retrospect, it is evidence of his struggle to be heard.


What all of us have in common is, of course, neither poetry nor art songs. But what we all have in common is the coin of the realm of poetry, as of art songs. That which underlies poetry is the commonality. That commonality is found in many other forms of art, as in other modes of living. 


But among the many expressions of human truths, poetry and art songs which sing those words are among the human expressions. I offer a poem of my own:



Sandburg says poetry

                is like the synthesis

                of hyacinths and biscuits;


Frost says poetry

                is what gets lost

                in translation;


Cocteau says poetry

                is indispensable; and

Jiménez says poetry

                is a state of grace;


I say poetry

                is like words,

                only better.

Poetry is like words, only better. Poems are words to be read. Art songs are words -- mostly in poems --  intended to be sung.  And both are expressions which make real the intangible yet common and underlying truths of human life. Or, if not, they should be. For poet, for composer, for performer, and for our audience of whatever size and number, that is the central goal of the art and craft of the art song.


Copyright © 2004 Gary Bachlund




[ 1 ]    The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations  Georges Polti, translated by Lucille Ray. Boston: The Writer, Inc., 1977.

[ 2 ]    from George Orwell's article entitled "Nonsense Poetry."

[ 3 ]     from All Things Considered by G. K. Chesterton,  John Lane Company, New York, 1909. 

[ 4 ]     from "Introduction" in New Poems [from Collected Poems] E. E. Cummings, 1938.