The human voice is a natural instrument with unique capabilities. Speech and music have been combined since the earliest times, so that Song is probably one of the oldest musical forms. Simple definitions for song might be “a piece of music performed by voice, with or without instrumental accompaniment,” or “a poem set to music.”
Music enhances words with emotional energy that speech alone cannot convey. But obviously, there is more to it than this! There are vocal compositions, for example, with no articulated text at all, called vocalises or vocalizzi in Italian. Although such works traditionally have been used as exercises, some 20th century composers have written concert vocalises as well. Additionally, singing styles differ among cultures, reflecting such influences as social structures, levels of literacy, languages and even sexual mores. This has resulted in a wide variety of musical products commonly accepted as “song.”
We do not have the space here to trace the historical development of song in great detail. Since our focus is understanding the nature of Art Song, we will focus instead on the predominate influences that shaped this musical genre and its defining characteristics. The advent of the modern art song marked a rejection of two prevailing attitudes found in mid-16th century polyphony, that is when more than one melody is played or sung simultaneously. First was the principle that a given piece of vocal music could at different times be performed in any number of alternative ways, sometimes solo, sometimes ensemble, sometimes instruments alone. Second was the idea that the song’s text is merely a servant of the music.
An increasing concern for textual interpretation began to appear in the mid-16th century. Emotionally significant texts in polyphonic compositions were emphasized through the use of special rhythms to make the text better understood, as well as through unexpected harmonic progressions, chromaticism, the use of notes outside the song’s mode, and coloratura, that is florid ornamentation. The final step in the transfer of these various techniques from “part” music to genuine “solo” music came at the end of the 16th-century, notably in Italian monody (expressive melody with chordal accompaniment- Caccini and Peri come to mind) and English lute songs by Dowland and Campian.
Seventeenth-century dramatic music saw further refinement of song style that likewise influenced Art Song. Distinctions arose between recitative, which is word-oriented and rhythmically free, with simple chordal accompaniment, and the aria, which was more virtuosic and melodically elaborate, with varied accompaniment. Indeed arias came to dominate opera, cantata and oratorio because they were more musically interesting, and in the 18th century relatively little attention was paid to solo songs outside these genres.