Make Art Song Fun Again

A brief background on the vibrant history of European art song tradition. Spoiler: it’s actually fun!

Salons. In the modern context, they’re a place to get a new haircut or a manicure. However, in the late 18th century through the early 20th century, a salon was where guests shared political ideas, music, art, and poetry. In European salons, the seeds of revolution were planted alongside the spread of petty gossip and the first performances of famous lieder. Salons were organized social gatherings, often hosted by bourgeoisie and noble women who had the fortune of having ample space and a piano. Guests at a salon would typically be well-educated in religion, politics, philosophy, science, and the arts. In other words, art song tradition is as rooted in elitism, privilege, and the upper class as opera is, unfortunately. Poor folks were not singing Schubert around the piano.

Jeunes filles au piano (Girls at the Piano) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, painted in 1892.

It’s difficult to overstate what salons and the social status of owning a piano did for the popularization of lieder– it’s likely there would not be a vital art song tradition without both factors. Although the piano was invented in 1700, most folks preferred the harpsichord until Bach was convinced to try out a piano in the late 18th century. Due to his wild popularity, other composers, such as Mozart and Beethoven, also began playing and composing for piano in place of the harpsichord by the late 1700s. 

The popularization of the piano coincided with the rise of the middle class. Owning a piano was a status symbol and signified increased leisure time, especially for women. Playing the piano was more common for women of the expanding upper middle class, and it became an expectation for women to study and play the piano gracefully. Despite this, women were not encouraged to pursue a concert career or to compose music. Clara Schumann was one notable exception to both of these rules.

A salon in the late 1700s.

While 17th and 18th-century salons originated as a social endeavor, throughout the 19th century, they became much more intellectual and political. Believe it or not, the American Revolution was a hot topic of political discussion in French salons of the late 1700s! As Europe ushered in the Romantic era, salon culture heavily explored literature, poetry, art, and music. Romanticism emphasized passionate love, appreciation of beauty, and the largeness of the natural world and humanity’s relation to it. Lieder was the perfect vehicle for these sentiments.

Unlike operas, musicians did not typically perform art songs for large audiences in concert halls– the songs, often played on the piano by the composer himself, were sung by lay people in salons. Although the two are so often grouped together today because 19th-century lieder is sung with a classical singing technique, opera and art song are pretty different. Operatic singing takes years of training and practice to execute, but lieder were meant to be sung by anybody for small audiences of friends while drinking wine and talking politics. 

That’s our guy Schubert at the piano!

Today, art song is used as a vehicle for building classical singing technique when the voice isn’t quite ready to execute the vocal acrobatics of opera or to fulfill university requirements for juries and recitals. While art song became increasingly virtuosic and challenging for the singer as the tradition developed in the late Romantic era and beyond, it was intended to be accessible, evocative, and fun. Yes, lieder were supposed to be fun, not something a sophomore vocal performance major halfheartedly sings for a panel of their university professors to get an A in voice for the semester.

Salons weren’t accessible or equitable; they were purposefully selective and elitist. They were literally bougie. However, the original purpose of art song, to exchange musical ideas and emotions among friends, has been totally lost in our modern classical music practice, and it’s time to bring it back. Art song is casual; it’s meant to be sung by anybody; you’re supposed to drink a glass of wine, make mistakes, and start over. The composer might play what they write and then change their mind and rewrite portions before the next performance. Maybe someone sings a song, and another wants to sing the same one, so it’s performed twice in a row; maybe they make up some words here or there. Perhaps it becomes a political song, or words change to tease someone in the room. It just isn’t that serious. 

Looking hot at my master’s recital. UNCG, May 2019.

For my master’s degree recital, I dressed in a golden gown and sang French, German, and American art songs for a polite audience that clapped at the end of my sets like they were supposed to. I didn’t speak with the audience or use music and was the only one singing. I had to do a comprehensive exam where I explained everything I knew about these songs to a panel of my professors to earn the right to perform them. Because I’m a bit of a weirdo, I did perform some new songs about Ruth Bader Ginsburg and included staging, but that’s because I’ve always wanted to make classical music a little less stuffy.

Only singing art song in recital is not salon culture. That’s relegating a vibrant and invigorating art form to academia’s boring and regimented walls. Performance art is alive! Lieder encompasses what it means to be human!

Consider this essay merely an introduction to my shifting perspective on lieder. Conveniently, I’m actually singing some Schubert and Schumann in what I would loosely consider a salon setting at the Germanic-American Institute in St. Paul this Sunday, February 26, at 4 pm. Don’t hesitate to reach out for details. If you’d like to purchase tickets, click here.

Four awesome Twin Cities singers (Eryn Tvete, Josh Diaz, Jimmy Finch, and myself) are performing on the program alongside our fearless pianist, Emily Urban. We will discuss our pieces before performing them, so the audience gets a bit of context. It feels like one small step toward salon culture and away from the stuffiness of recital halls. 

Singing songs with friends while drinking wine and discussing politics and current events sounds much more fun than cramming for an undergraduate recital. Let’s make art song fun again.


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