It’s not something you necessarily listen to everyday on Spotify, but I’ve recently been introduced to ‘art songs’. This all started when a wonderfully talented composer, Charlotte Marlow, got in touch with me to collaborate on an art song sequence for a celebration at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.
March 19th this year is the Day of Song. Charlotte was keen to create something exploring women’s roles in folklore and mythology, and she gave me my first introduction to what an art song in music actually is, how long the lyrics should be, and what it could mean artistically.
I sent Charlotte three poems – one about the Bean Nighe (a banshee like spirit, who washes the clothes of those who’re soon to die in a nearby river at night), one from the perspective of a ‘witch’ in the 1600s calling her sister home, and a modern day interpretation of the Medusa myth. In addition to Bean Nighe being performed at the Day of Song celebration, Charlotte’s working on a song cycle to incorporate the three poems into one performance piece. I can’t wait to hear it.
Rather than me answer ‘what is an art song’, I thought there was no better person to ask than Charlotte herself.
Hi Charlotte! Can you tell me a little bit about what you do and the music you make?
Hi Caroline! Sure thing. I’m a composer, and my work covers a large range of genres. Most of what I do can be described as contemporary classical music. There can be a stigma around contemporary classical being stuffy, hard to listen to, and high-brow, but I truly believe everyone can gain something from listening to new music!
I tend to focus on theatrical and dramatic elements in my practice, as I believe it’s a way to engage audiences with abstract and/or “hard” subject matter. For that reason, this past year I’ve been mostly writing works for opera, ballet and chamber works with theatrical elements.
What is an art song?
An art song is, broadly, a vocal music composition for voice and one other instrument (usually piano), intended for performance in recital setting. The 19th century composer Franz Schubert is often considered the master of art songs (and certainly one of the most prolific), having written over 600 secular works for solo voice in his lifetime. The definition has expanded somewhat in the 20/21st century, and ‘art song’ has come to incorporate small chamber groups with voice, yet some composers do debate whether these are art songs or vocal chamber works!
There can be a lot of debate over semantics is classical music… for me , personally, an art song is any vocal chamber work for solo voice that can be performed as part of a concert.
What are your favourite examples of art songs?
Ooh that’s a tough one!! I think the Berio Folk Songs do stand out for me, in particular. They’re a great mix of beautifully arranged folk melodies with some cheeky originals that Berio snuck in there.
However, some people would argue these aren’t art songs, owing to the slightly larger ensemble! Schubert’s Erlkönig will forever be one of those pieces I’m drawn to, and it’s irrefutably an art song. There’s a scintillating malevolence there that’s just a joy to experience.
What elements are important when composing an art song?
When working with text, the most important thing to me is that there is a respect for the material you’re setting to music. Oftentimes in classical art song there is an artificial hierarchy of music over text, or vice versa which just feels so… wrong to me. Text and music can elevate each other, so when I engage in a piece involving text I’m very conscious of trying to be as sensitive as possible to both mediums.
A personal thing that I think is important in art song is a sense of theatre, or drama in a piece. I’d rather sacrifice or stray from engagement with interesting musical or academic processes if it enables a more interesting dramatic narrative within a work. That, for me, is where the excitement comes from!
What inspired you to pursue music composition as a career?
As a 15-year-old I (naively!) thought it would be a relatively stress-free profession in an industry I felt passionate about. Like anything, if you want to be successful and write good music though you really have to give your all to it. I spend 90% of my days stressing about music, 15-year-old me would be outraged!
Are there any music projects you’d love to work on in years to come?
Ah there are so many things on my musical bucket list! I’d love to work with Tanztheater Wuppertal, as I’m a *huge* Pina Bausch fan. Bausch has probably been the singular biggest influence on my artistic practice, so working with her company would be a dream come true. The list of collaborations I’d love to do is massive though, I don’t think I’ll ever run out of projects to pursue!
So, what is an art song? It’s a bit of a debate – but whatever you see it as, it’s a stunning vocal piece with a story. I can’t express how thrilled I am to be part of something so special. Charlotte’s sent me copies of the sheet music and I’m so proud of it that I’m thinking of framing the three pieces in my study! If you’d like to keep up with stuff Charlotte’s doing, you can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.