Art Song Characteristics – A Picture of the Soul

Art Song Characteristics- A Picture of the Soul

The art song over the years has grown in favor and has developed into one of the used avenues of vocal music expression. Almost all the great composers have ventured into art song composition. Some have excelled more than others. The art song characteristics have made it a favorite of many of the prolific composers of the Romantic and Contemporary eras.

The Art Song

We shall endeavor to present in this article some of the characteristics of what is called the Art Song. It will by no means be exhaustive but will give us a beginning point of understanding the genre.

The Roots of The Art Song

The art song can trace its’ beginnings back to the Renaissance Period when composers began to experiment with different forms of musical composition. The main benefactor of music then was the church. So most of the musical composition was of a religious nature. Though scripture is very inspiring and can illicit many emotions the church leaders held a heavy hand on what might be presented. Never the less, emotions began to creep into the musical compositions.

The Art Song

Rennaisance – Rebirth

As the Renaissance morphed into the Baroque Era the emotions were expressed through florid passages nuanced articulations. Composers were gradually becoming free to express their feelings the way they thought best. They were becoming more independent from the bindings of the religious hierarchy.

The Art Song

As the Baroque Era transitioned into the Classical Period, the controlling factor in music became form. One would think that such a thing as adhering to form would be restrictive, but no, rather the composer began to use this structure upon which to produce great and powerful music. This occurred not only in the church but in the secular realm as well. Not only were moving and magnificent liturgical works composed but symphonies and concertos and chamber music began to flourish.

Though song was very present, in operas, in masses, in motets and various other vocal forms; what is known as the art song had not yet arrived.

Classical to Romantic

In the late 1700s music began to take on characteristics other than just form. Musical theorists explored the evocation of emotions brought about by various chords. No longer were chords built on simple triads but were elongated to 7ths, 9ths, and more. Dissonances were introduced to produce a feeling of mystery or foreboding. Inversions of extended chords added even more color to the palette.

The Art Song

Composers grounded in the Classical Period but developing in the area of developing mood and evoking pictures through their music composition began to expand their bounds. Rather than being restricted by the forms of the Classical Period, they used the form to channel the emotions that they wished to express through their music.

Now the composers began to create music which incorporated not just the chamber orchestra of the Classical Period but began to include new instruments that were created and developed in the Classical Period. The orchestra grew in size and in the wide range of expression which it could bring to its’ audiences.


Through each of the eras that we have mentioned their were great composers. In the Renaissance there was Palestrina. The Baroque was notable for the great J.S.Bach and Antonio Vivaldi. In the Classical Period was Josef Haydn and the genius Wolfgang Mozart. These and many more composers added to the march of music composition and presentation that finally brought it to the time which we are addressing in relation to our subject: the art song.

The Art Song

The Art Song

The art song is a child of the Romantic Era. In Romantic, we are not implying the amorous feelings of a man for a woman, or vise versa, but about music which evokes emotions and feelings about which the music is composed. Beethoven was a bridge composer from the Classical to the Romantic. One can listen to his first symphony and be impressed by its’ form and logic in every aspect. It is a classic example of Classical Era composition. But one can then listen to his ninth symphony and be moved to great emotion fervor though it also has Classical Period form.

Through composers like Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Mendelssohn and many others we are issued into the Romantic Era.

Though songs had always been written, standalone songs were seldom promoted. Opera was a staple beginning early baroque(though not the form we know today) on through the Classical and Romantic to the Twentieth Century and to the contemporary, but the art song found a strong footing in the Romantic Period. Composers like Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, and countless others began to write art songs.

German Composers

Most of the composers I have used as examples were of German descent. These were probably the most influential, but composers of many nationalities added their part. The French, the Italians, the Spanish, the English, and even the Americans. There were other nationalities too, but not as notable as others.

Probably the most prolific in the form of the art song was Franz Schubert. He composed symphonies, chamber music, piano music, choral music, and more. But he excelled in the art song. We have more than 600 songs which we know are composed by him. When the art song is studied by aspiring composers, Franz Schubert is the example studied most. Every one of his art songs has great merit. Some composers do well in some songs and not so well in others. Such is not the case with Schubert. He was the master. One cannot truly be a singer of art songs and not include Schubert in his or her repertoire.

Franz Schubert set such a high standard in his compositions of art songs that seldom is their any that could even be considered in the same category


There are few genres that can express the broad spectrum of human emotion that the art song embodies. Art song characteristics have been founded in the moorings of all the great eras leading up to it. It is not a “flash in the pan” type of genre which lasts for a few years or a generation but is a form that continues today and still flourishes. Though it may have reached its pinnacle in Schubert and the composers of the Romantic Era, it is still a viable and vibrant form of musical expression.

Below is a link that you may check out some of Franz Schubert’s song cycles on Amazon.

Happy listening.

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