ForumCategory: Looks at Books (and Poems)A Note on “An Introduction to Art Song for Writers”
admin Staff asked 1 month ago

Dear PSP students,

on the calendar, you may have noticed there is a lecture-concert called “An Introduction to Art Song for Writers.” Even as I try my best to keep the organizational aspect of the program together, this is my small contribution to the actual content of the PSP. I realize the term “lecture-concert” sounds like the worst thing to spend your time listening to in a beautiful city you still wish to explore and the name of the lecture-concert itself is not all that appealing (“art song” sounds so quaint and boring), either. That is why I wanted to give you a little introduction:

The idea behind the lecture-concert is to expose you to a musical genre which has been, in essence, living off of literature, particularly poetry, even as the world of writers and literature has remained oblivious to it (with the exception of particular writers, among them Jaimy Gordon and Patricia Hampl, for instance). The term “art song” simply refers to songs composed by classical composers for classically-trained singers – it is a fringe genre even within so-called “classical music” but it is a genre which should be compelling to writers, because of its use of literary texts. The purpose of the lecture-concert is to simply introduce you to, and/or deepen your appreciation of, art song, a genre which just so happens to interact heavily with your own discipline. My DuoKaM has prepared about twenty minutes of art-songs for you which I will introduce historically and musically. My greatest wish, however, is that hearing texts you know and poets you admire set to music – an experience which I should warn you is sometimes jarring and disconcerting – will broaden your perspective on the aural aspect of your own work.

To “prepare” for the concert, you may find it useful to read the poems behind the songs. You will have definitely read at least half of these poems at some point, I think, but I’m sure you’ll enjoy refreshing your memory. You can find the texts here.

Some questions you may have:

Who are you to bother us with a lecture-concert?!

In keeping with the recital, which will feature settings of poems by Emily Dickinson, I could answer: “I am nobody – who are you?” The more helpful answer is that my other life is as a classically trained singer. About a year ago, I founded a piano-vocal duo called DuoKaM, which focuses on 20th century art song. In our not-quite year of existence, we have given a fair amount of performances, mostly focusing on Czech repertoire, particularly the Czech 20th century composers Vítězslava Kaprálová and Bohuslav Martinů about which I did a US “tour” of lecture-concerts. You can learn more about DuoKaM here.

I saw the PDF of the pieces you will be singing – why are you only singing American composers and American poets?

My first criteria for creating the program was that the texts be in English, because I wanted you to understand the text without needing translations. This narrowed my options considerably. But why not songs by English, Australian, Canadian composers or songs written in English by non-anglophone composers? Well, it may be a fringe genre by art song repertoire is vast and I needed a way to further narrow it down. I wrote my Masters dissertation a couple years ago as a handbook for Czech singers seeking to learn more about American classical vocal repertoire so I chose to focus on American composers not because I wish to be America-centric but simply because I actually know something about that body of work. Even so, the abundance of American art song is a bit overwhelming so I decided to further narrow my scope to setting of American poetry. And since I wanted to find setting of pieces you (mostly American college students) would have already known, I searched for setting of well-known writers and well-known poems. And voilá that is the basis on which the repertoire was chosen.

How can you call your recital “an introduction to art song” when you’re only interpreting one small body of work within it?

This is a very good question. It is true that American classical music, being a 20th century phenomenon, is always just the tip of, or in better cases the culmination of, what came before it in Europe. However, I think exploring the tradition of a language you understand can make it easier to go back to the basics, namely the German tradition, the father of which was Schubert, and then explore the French tradition and the various national offshoots of the late 19th century, the Czech tradition among them. I actually think this strange 20th century American tradition can be a perfect starting point from which you can delve deeper into the past. Consider, also, that most of you spend your time exploring 20th century and contemporary literature and study Romantic literature (contemporary to the classic works of art song) only as historical artifact. I thought it somehow fitting to mirror this even in the art songs I chose, in order to, in a sense, bring it closer to you.

A quick note on musical terms: Art song is the term we use in English for all songs written by classical composers for classically trained singers. In classical music circles, however, we distinguish art song traditions by the names indigenous to their respective languages, i.e. you would not say German art-song or French art-song, you would say lied and mélodie. Because of the importance of text in art song, there is a strong national character attached to it which may be why we distinguish the national traditions like this. In English, art song refers to the classical song as such but can also refer more specifically to the English-language classical song tradition. Even so, you then have to distinguish American art-song, English art-song etc. Yes, I did mean the broader sense of the term in my title.

All best, Ema K.