Art Song: An Introduction

In autumn of 2009, Memorious hosted an Art Song contest, open to all poets for no fee. Composer Randall West selected Jill McDonough as the winner, and he set three poems for Memorious. The Beacon Street Chamber Players of Chicago then recorded the three art songs for us in an initial reading, which you can listen to here in Issue 14, and they will perform the works live in Chicago in May, as part of the Chicago S O N G series directed by Eric Malmquist.

                  —The Editors

Art song is a genre of classical music that has deep European roots. Strictly speaking, an “art song” is the setting of a poem to music for a singer and a piano. It had its beginnings in Germany and Austria in the early 19th century, and its greatest composers for about a century were mostly German until some French and English composers gave it a try in the late 19th century. But its German roots were so overpowering that the first notable American composers around the turn of the 20th century wrote songs with German texts in a German style. Today, the idea of classical music as an old European phenomenon persists so much that when I wrote a short opera people kept asking me what language it was in, and they were astonished when I said English.

But the last quarter-century has seen an explosion of American composers writing art songs for our own time and nation. Composers are still setting poetry to music, but many are also setting non-poetic works, including newspaper columns, recipes, listings from “missed connections” on Craigslist, and crazed writings found on a Chicago bus.

Unfortunately, contemporary American art song doesn’t have many public venues outside of New York. Most singers learn some modern repertoire because it’s a requirement for graduation from music school, but then are forced to leave it behind to focus on careers singing only “old music” by deceased Italians and Germans.

Singers On New Ground (S O N G) is a group I founded in Chicago that is dedicated to creating a venue for art song so as to provide new composers with opportunities to present their work and singers with the opportunity to perform the modern work they love. So far we’ve had two very successful concerts, with the third coming up on May 23rd in collaboration with this journal.

When Rebecca Morgan Frank and Randall West told me they were hosting a poetry contest for Memorious wherein the winner’s work is set to music, we decided it would be perfect to give the piece its live premiere, with the poet in attendance, with S O N G. Randall will tell you more about selecting and setting the winner, but I can tell you that the finished piece will be featured in a S O N G concert in Chicago on Sunday May 23rd 2010. If you’re in the area, drop by and give it, and other pieces on the program, a listen!

S O N G - Ars Poetica

May 23rd, 3pm
Curtiss Hall
Fine Arts Building, 10th Floor
410 S. Michigan Ave.
Chicago IL 60605


The Beacon Street Chamber Players:
Aleida Gehrels, viola
Jonathan Goya, violin
Kevin Reeks, piano
Kyra Saltman, cello
Samantha Stein, soprano
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