Art of the Song

Is it impossible to say just what you mean? Composers try to, using a symbolic form to express the inexpressible. The poets do the same, with more familiar language. And for centuries, composers and poets have come together in the art-song, the setting of poetry to music.

It’s a form where the greats like Mahler cut their teeth and others, like Schubert, found their calling. There is no better way to hone the craft of composition, as different lines, phrases and poetic ideas require different musical accompaniment, a task that stretches the musical and conceptual muscles as effectively as yoga. Beyond shaping structures and putting notes on paper, making art-songs is a great exercise in comprehension and imagination. Once a composer decides to set poetry to music, he had better have an idea, not only of how to do so musically, but of what meaning in the poetry he will try to convey. Fundamentally, making art-songs is about making critical and aesthetic decisions; deciding you are attracted to the poem, deciding what meaning that poem has for you and solving the problem of expression. This is so vital because the act of setting poetry already makes it into something else, something possibly better but also possibly worse, turning something meant to be heard in the mind or in the speaking voice into an artifice of melody, harmony and exaggerated articulation.

The art-song is also a challenge for the singer as well, who faces similar issues; what does this song mean to me, how will I convey that meaning, what view and means should I emphasize? It’s one thing to sing opera, where the music does a great deal of the characterization, and that has the context of the audience’s knowledge of the dramatic personae and situations. With art-songs, the singer’s musical and intellectual imagination are exposed, and like the composer they had better have something to say.

Christine Schäfer’s recent Zankel Hall recital was a demonstration of both the difficulties and possibilities in the art-song, and of its enduring power. Her program was musically challenging and intelligent; she sang songs by Henry Purcell and the contemporary American composer George Crumb, including the latter’s great Apparition, which sets poetry of Walt Whitman, and she wove the works amidst each other, eschewing breaks for applause and alternating the music of each era. Beyond the standard recital, this was an integral, thought-through performance.

Purcell’s songs are wonderful and some, like “Music for a While,” are relatively famous. He set the poetry of his contemporaries, like John Dryden, whose words had immediate meaning to him in terms of language and content. His songs are graceful, rhythmically lively, earthy and dramatic. Drama was Schäfer’s focus, and a bit of a hurdle at the beginning. She opened with a set of five Purcell songs, and these moved back and forth from mannerism to naturalness as the tempo slowed or increased. Mannerism in singing is a quality that’s easy to hear yet hard to define; Schäfer is an intelligent musician and performer, not just a fine singer, and she thinks about what she’s doing. It’s not as easy as saying that she was perhaps thinking too much at times, although certainly a slower tempo allows greater opportunity for the performer to contemplate what is happening. It came out as a sense of self-consciousness in the shaping of certain notes, words and phrases, an additional emphasis that bordered on exaggeration. Her vocal quality is also in the tradition of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, a highly mannered singer herself. In songs like “If Music Be the Food of Love” and “An Epithalamium,” the music and expression flowed with clarity and purpose, while in the Dryden songs and “Sweeter than Roses” (Richard Norton), there was some tension as she seemed slightly outside the music, not completely feeling it.

Crumb’s Three Early Songs where stitched into the Purcell sets, and the relationship is clear. He’s a composer who deliberately connects his style and techniques to that of earlier music, an avant-gardist in sound, but not form. Purcell’s basic, transparent harmonies become textures in Crumb, but the sense of tonality and musical line is clear. Purcell embellishes the beauty of the words he finds by setting them to music, Crumb expresses the meaning of the words he finds through beautiful, beguiling sound-worlds. Schäfer sang these with complete understanding and sympathy, nothing more than music-making. Once she turned back to Purcell, in the long “From Rosy Bow’rs,” the performance moved into new territory. As quick and subtle as the edge of the single black hair in the dark of night, she was completely inside the music, and what one heard was Purcell. Her phrasing became slightly simpler, she clearly was comfortable in the slowest, quietest sections, and she was spellbinding. The first half finished with a powerful performance of “Crown the Altar.”

The second half was rich, dark and deep. She began with Dido’s lament from Dido and Aeneas, roughly six minutes of some of the greatest music ever composed. The power of the focused, passionate vocal line as the character sings “Remember me, but ah! Forget my fate” set against the plangent tragedy of the gracefully descending baseline is as simple and astonishing as musical art can be. The music has such inherent depth that the barest expression is the most eloquent, and Schäfer held back with great suppleness, even in the most dramatic octave jumps in the voice. The accompaniment by Eric Schneider was equally understated and effective. Then, with the last notes still resonating in the hall, they segued immediately into Apparition, Crumb’s mysterious, dramatic elegy for Whitman and for Whitman’s America. The music is sympathetic to and evocative of the poet’s sense of tragic mood and of hope for recovery. There is the seeming novelty of the pianist playing the strings of the instrument directly with his hands, but fundamentally the connection is with the earliest songs, with the strummed accompaniment of the lute, and the sound is completely tonal, almost simplistically so, while the color is rich and shimmering. Intertwined amidst the poetry are vocalizes for the singer, who turns her voice into the piano body to create sympathetic vibrations in the strings. More than color and decoration, this is the poet and performer turning inward to contemplate the awful beauty and power of phrases like “Dark Mother, always gliding near, with soft feet/Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?” The song tradition can be traced back to the troubadours, and Whitman himself was America’s great troubadour. Crumb follows in that tradition by making Whitman sing. Schäfer and Schneider performed this music with a quiet, focused intensity that kept the audience riveted on every word and note, building in power without overwhelming any moment. The final line of poetry, “nestling close to thee,” is repeated silently, the singer mouthing the words. It was spine tingling.

Crumb is still making music, and composers are still making art songs. A new release from Sam Sadigursky, “words project iii miniatures,” is actually the third volume in this series from him. Sadigursky is trying to convey both clarity and a certain immediacy of reaction to the poetry he sets, and is also trying to consciously write new art-songs. The problem is the tradition in which he sets himself, which, even in contemporary examples, overpowers his results. The music is not bad – it’s competently made, produced and performed – but it’s also not good, it doesn’t offer it’s own positive agency. He offers the context of wanting to avoid beatnik clichés about music and poetry as well as overly-elaborate settings, but the end result is that I have no idea exactly what he wants to do. His music borrows from other composers and musicians, including Satie, Björk, Jobim, Elvis Costello, Evan Parker, Steve Lacy and Steve Reich. The opening track, ‘content,’ sounds like an adaptation of Reich’s Proverb, while ‘now’ has the lilt of Satie and the string and vocal arrangement of something off “The Juliet Letters.” Sadigursky may claim to eschew jazz-and-poetry clichés, but his setting of William Carlos Williams ‘danse russe’ is an unfortunate example of that same cliché, except the bass doesn’t swing, the vibes are stiff and obvious and the slightly vocalized recitation of the poem over the music is . . . a recitation of the poem over the music. The composer may wish to mock the conventions of the style but he doesn’t have the chops to mock anyone other than himself.

There’s another cliché that is pervasive on the CD, one that may be too close to Sadigursky for him to hear; the inclination towards lack of affect in much of contemporary, hip, pop music. It’s a style in general, which is only a problem if it’s unappealing, but once you decide to choose poetry and express something about it by setting it to music, it’s aesthetic suicide. I have no idea what Sadigursky thinks of these poems since he so assiduously avoids making music that says anything about them, and uses singers, predominately Monika Heidemann, who favor an emotionally inexpressive delivery. Maybe that works in parts of Williamsburg, but if you have nothing to say about Williams, Carl Sandburg or Emily Dickinson than it’s best not to try to say anything. The one singer on here who cannot help to express multitudes every time she sounds her instrument is the great Christine Correa, and her feature on Gorky’s ‘o muzyke tolstykh’ is a microcosm of the recording. It’s a limited imitation of the jazz art-songs Steve Lacy pioneered with his wife, Irene Aebi. Correa comes directly from that Lacy-Aebi style, but with far more musical and expressive chops than her predecessor, and yet Sadigursky straight-jackets her power into the most simplistic gloss on Lacy’s aphoristic, arpeggiated style. Lacy produced a complete lesson in how to make the non-jazz, non-beatnik contemporary art-song in his great cycle “Rushes,” but that lesson appears to have had little effect here. There is too much other people’s work on this disc, and cheap imitations no less. I’m left with the knowledge that Sadigusrky has heard a lot of music and read a lot of poetry, but I have no knowledge of what he himself thinks as a musician and a composer, what his own music and poetry sound like. Making art-songs means joining the company of Purcell, Schubert, Crumb and Lacy, and you had better have your own voice.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.


  • If you’ve never looked at the score of “Apparition,” you should. As you know, Crumb has his scores published in his own manuscript, and uses somewhat unorthodox notational systems. The first page of the first movement of “Apparition” has two curved staves, in the shape of an eye, or an oval, giving a visual depiction of what the piece is about — the cycles of nature, life, and death. In this regard, Crumb consciously evokes Renaissance-musical text painting, and suggests Renaissance music also in the strumming of the strings of the piano, turning it into a lute, as you noted, or a harp.

    The vocalise sections are meant to depict the sounds of nature – bird calls, etc. — and in fact the excerpt from “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” that he chose to set is entirely from one section of the poem, “Death Carol,” which is the lament of an anthropomorphized thrush for Lincoln’s death. Crumb’s directions to the performers in the score are extremely specific and highly evocative — you must have a look! And the result is a piece — really, a masterpiece — whose performance seems incredibly free, but which is actually tightly controlled by the composer.

    I think I mentioned to you that I heard a live radio broadcast of Renée Fleming and Jean-Yves Thibaudet doing this piece, and she omitted the three vocalises, which is so wrong that I still don’t understand why she did it. I suppose it wouldn’t do to have the most famous soprano in the world making bird-calls and guttural death rattles. Go figure.

    • That’s a pretty good distillation of the difference between a singer and a performer, the former puts themselves on display, the latter puts the music on display. It turns out Schäfer has recorded Crumb and Purcell already, it includes Apparition but has a different overall program than the concert. And yes, I know Crumb’s scores, and the visual beauty of them seems to me part of the beauty of how they sound.

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