On Art Songs
1. A MISPERCEPTION
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.
2. ADVICE FROM A POET
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
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
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
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
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.
5. JUDGMENT BASED ON COMMON THEMES
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
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
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 ]
6. FINAL THOUGHTS
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'.]
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
Cocteau says poetry
is indispensable; and
Jiménez says poetry
is a state of grace;
I say poetry
is like words,
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
Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations Georges Polti, translated by
Lucille Ray. Boston: The Writer, Inc., 1977.
[ 2 ] from George Orwell's
article entitled "Nonsense Poetry."
from All Things Considered by G. K. Chesterton, John Lane
Company, New York, 1909.
from "Introduction" in New Poems [from Collected Poems] E. E.