The Music Major Minute : Poetry in Art Songs–A Singer’s Hallmark

Classical singers have a wonderful advantage over instrumentalists in musical interpretation: poetry. Along with beautiful sounds, singers share words of poetry in their performances. The composer Jacques Leguerney writes, “The best poems are the ones in which you cannot read the poetry alone without thinking at once about the music.”1 A singer performing art song is tasked with studying both the text and the music. To artistically interpret a song, a singer must understand what the words mean and imagine what the composer wanted to express in the music.

Most musicians are drawn to the beauty of a musical phrase. Whether that is melodic, rhythmic, or enticingly dissonant—we want to share the music that moves us. The hallmark of a vocal artist is creating music and communicating the text, which is a meaningful mission (should you choose to accept it).

In his final opera, Capriccio, Richard Strauss and the conductor Clemens Krauss wrote an inspired “conversation piece” describing their ideas regarding the importance of words and music in opera. A poet and a musician who rival for the love of a countess personify the “words” and “music.” In the finale, the countess does not answer the question of which is more important. Rather, she poses the question to the audience: Words and music—is there one that isn’t trivial?

“Art song is a unique hybrid of poetry and music, fashioned of two arts that from earliest times were considered ‘sister art.’ Poetry and music share similar sound characteristics. . . . In the best of art songs, the composer’s musical ‘re-creation’ or ‘transformation’ of the text unites the poetry and music in such a way that it is impossible to think of them apart. We do not hear poetry set to music, we hear an art song.”
—Carol Kimball, Art Song: Linking Poetry and Music, p. 9

As classical singers, it is essential to spend time learning about the poetry you sing apart from the music. Composers choose poems that inspire melodies. Some composers write their own texts, but most of the art song repertoire begins with a poem. Many musical scholars agree that the great composers set words penned by esteemed poets.

The format of a vocal recital includes certain requirements when you are earning academic degrees, but there is always room for creative programming. Selecting specific poetry opens the possibility of a themed recital with a personal touch. Shirlee Emmons’ book The Art of the Song Recital is a resource that can benefit all singers with the assistance of keen programming. After graduation, themed recitals will be restricted only by your imagination.

Students of classical singing are required to take courses in diction. Not only do audiences want to hear your beautiful voice, they want to understand the words. Your diction is imperative in every language you sing—especially your native language. Classical art songs are powerful in part because the repertoire encompasses works whose music has stood the test of time.

I note “in part” because the power of a song is perceived only when a singer performs it. The audience will like, or hopefully love, a song because of the way you sing it, not because of how it looks on the printed page. You, the interpreter of this melodic poem, will give a more artistic performance when you have diligently studied the music and can deliver the nuances that the composer carefully crafted to express the natural rhythms of the language and the sounds of the words themselves.

Franz Schubert is generally regarded as the “King of Art Song.” He wrote over 600 songs, and one of the most famous, “An die Musik” (“To Music”), is an artistically important work demonstrating the relationship of poetry and music. This poem is a great study for young singers in the pursuit of learning how to interpret an art song.

Described by many as a love song, the words in “An die Musik” directly praise the music by personifying art as the object of the singer’s love. The poet, Franz von Schober, was a close friend of Schubert’s and a supporter of his music. Schubert’s music gives life to Schober’s words with exquisite tone and phrasing.

“An die Musik” (“To Music”)
Poetry by Franz von Schober

Du holde Kunst, in wie viel grauen Stunden,
Wo mich des Lebens wilder Kreis umstrickt,
Hast du mein Herz zu warmer Lieb entzünden,
Hast mich in eine bessre Welt entrückt,
In eine bessre Welt entrückt!

You dear, sweet Art, in many dismal hours
Where I’ve been bound by life’s unruly course,
Then in my heart, a warmer love you have ignited
You’ve carried me to a better, better world,
Yes, to a better, better world!

Oft hat ein Seufzer, deiner Harf’ entflossen,
Ein süsser, heiliger Akkord von dir,
Den Himmel bessrer Zeiten mir erschlossen,
Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir dafür,
Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir!

Often comes a sigh, a holy chord from your harp strings
That sparks in me a vision, one I clearly see,
A glimpse of heaven, and the sight of better times before me,
I thank you for these things, you dear sweet Art,
You noble Art, my thanks to you.
—Translated for public domain by Tom Potter,

In classical songs, composers set existing poems and in popular songs/musicals, the composers work with a lyricist. The difference should be noted that in classical songs a singer interprets poetry, but in popular songs a singer interprets lyrics.

In a 1964 episode of The Judy Garland Show, the legendary singer said, “You know, some of the most beautiful poetry ever written in America can be found in the lyrics of our popular songs. One of the most outstanding examples can be found in a song called ‘Lost in the Stars.’ Maxwell Anderson’s lyrics attempt to explain the universe and its creation to a small child in the simplest of terms.” Her performance is a masterclass in delivering an honest, heartfelt interpretation of a song:

“Lost in the Stars”
Lyrics by Maxwell Anderson, Music by Kurt Weill

Before Lord God made the sea and the land
He held all the stars in the palm of his hand
And they ran through his fingers like grains of sand
And one little star fell alone. . . .
And we’re lost out here in the stars
Little stars, big stars, blowing through the night
And we’re lost out here in the stars.

The More You Know
For further study on how to approach poetry in art song, I recommend Kimball’s book Art Song: Linking Poetry and Music. She offers solid information in an accessible way that will aid students of all levels with an introduction to poetry and its importance in art song. In this book, Kimball defines art song and poetry and she offers techniques for learning to interpret both.

Toward the end of her book, Kimball presents “The Poetry Poll” where she surveys accomplished and well known colleagues to identify a singular favorite poem in the art song repertory. This idea inspired me to create my own poetry poll in a Facebook group of classical singers. My post asked for favorite poems learned through art song. Many exquisite poems were mentioned in foreign languages, but for the sake of space I will share only a few poems in English, credited with the composer that set each poem with a sublime melody. By sharing these beloved poems of fellow singers, I hope to introduce younger singers to poetry that will be with you throughout your careers.

“[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]”
Poetry by E. E. Cummings, Music by John Duke

A favorite of Stacey Tappan, soprano

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

“Sure on This Shining Night”
Poetry by James Agee, Music by Samuel Barber

A favorite of Philip Joseph Fillion, pianist

Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand’ring far
Of shadows on the stars.

“Heart, We Will Forget Him”
Poetry by Emily Dickinson, Music by Aaron Copland

A favorite of Josi-Patrice Houston, mezzo-soprano

Heart, we will forget him
You and I, tonight.
You may forget the warmth he gave,
I will forget the light.

When you have done, pray tell me,
That I my thoughts may dim;
Haste! lest while you’re lagging,
I may remember him!

“The Night Has a Thousand Eyes”
Poetry by Francis William Bourdillon, Music by Lori Laitman

A favorite of Brian Lee, tenor and voice teacher

The night has a thousand eyes,
And the day but one;
Yet the light of the bright world dies
With the dying sun.

The mind has a thousand eyes,
And the heart but one;
Yet the light of a whole life dies
When love is done.

“Had I the Heavens’ Embroidered Cloths”
Poetry by W. B. Yeats, Music by Thomas Dunhill

A favorite of Christine Thomas, mezzo-soprano

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths
Enwrought with golden and silver light
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Christi Amonson

Soprano Christi Amonson’s recent concert engagements include touring China as a soloist with Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra, “Easy to Love” pops concert with the Sacramento Choral Society & Orchestra. Opera News described her sound as “liquid silver” after singing Nannetta with Chautauqua Opera. Amonson earned her DMA in voice and theatre under the tutelage of Grayson Hirst at the University of Arizona, where she has been an instructor. She earned her MM in Voice at the Manhattan School of Music and her BM in Music Education at the University of Idaho. In New York City, she sang with several opera companies and directed choirs for the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s Urban Voices Program. She is currently assistant professor of voice at Troy University.