The art of the art song

Let’s start at the very beginning! Before I start posting about how I’m composing some of the Cracked Voices pieces, I thought I’d talk a bit about art songs and their history.

To put it bluntly, an art song is a poem set to music. Traditionally they are secular, and feature a pianist and a singer. Sometimes they feature more than one vocalist – in our case, we’re using both a soprano and a baritone. More unusually, we’ll also be augmenting the setup with one further instrument, which is uncommon but not unheard of! They’re designed to be performed in a more formal setting, such as concerts and recitals, which differentiates them from musical theatre songs, folk songs and popular songs. Grove rather amusingly defines them as “a short vocal piece of serious artistic purpose” which makes them sound all too serious, but their subject matter be absolutely anything, be it humour or discussing death!

A song cycle, then, is a collection of art songs linked together. The link could be a very vague thread, or they could be intrinsically tangled together. Obviously the subject matter will be the predominant link in Cracked Voices, but there are others that I’m sure we’ll discuss later.

Some people are more familiar with the term lieder than art songs – the term more specifically for German polyphonic art songs. Schubert is historically the king of lieder, having written over 600 in his lifetime.  I was introduced to a vast array of art songs at university (predominantly lieder!) when accompanying some wonderful singers for various workshops and recitals, which is where my love of them began. Below is a recording of one I’ve acccompanied several times – Schubert’s famous Erlkönig, complete with animation (and one of the few recordings I’ve seen that credit the performers). This was recorded by Oxford Lieder as part of their Schubert Project.

Various composers have written art songs in a multitude of languages. If you’re interested in finding some others, The Art Song Project have recorded a whole range, including a lot by living composers (and the one of mine below!).

One constant worry for all writers of new music is how do we draw new audiences in? Some audiences would find new music scary, and may be daunted by an evening dominated by a newly commissioned lengthy symphony. In a song cycle, however, each song tends to be short and sweet – averaging around three minutes in length (shorter than your average pop song!). Each of ours will have characters and a story behind it too, which when coupled with Graham’s wonderful writing will make these art songs excellent for anyone to sink their teeth into, whether they’re a music academic or a newcomer to the concert scene (and anywhere in between!).

In time I hope to share a few snippets of the Cracked Voices songs – sneak previews before the 2018 premiere! To give you a bit of a taste in the meantime, here’s an art song of mine composed back in 2013 – Bells in the Rain, performed here by Hélène Lindqvist and Philipp Vogler of The Art Song Project.


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[…] part of Cracked Voices, I’ll be uploading regular blog posts. Click here to read my post on the art of the art song – a brief introduction into this fantastic form of […]


[…] part of Cracked Voices, I’ll be uploading regular blog posts. Click here to read my post on the art of the art song – a brief introduction into this fantastic form of […]