The Music Major Minute: Unexpected Vocal Literature Part One – English

The Music Major Minute: Unexpected Vocal Literature Part One – English

Unexpected Vocal Literature Part One: English


The songs you sing in lessons will be some of the most memorable studies of your college years. Voice teachers will assign repertoire that follows NASM (National Association of Schools of Music) standards and will help solidify your technique. This column will present the national guidelines for repertoire selection with lists of some unexpected art songs that represent styles and languages that vocal music majors need to learn in English. Part two of this overview will include Italian, part three, French and part four, German repertoire in forthcoming issues. Learning to research music that suits your voice type will help you level up as a singer. If you are a curious scholar looking for songs beyond the 24 Italian Songs and Arias, this column is for you. 

To prepare competent vocal music majors to sing on stages anywhere in the world, repertoire from the Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Contemporary periods of history in English, Italian, French and German languages. As your vocal technique develops, you might find you are stronger in one style than another. Lighter, agile voices are often better in the early music repertoire and robust, dramatic voices might find their happy place in verismo opera or the late German romantic repertoire. Your teacher will guide you to music that demonstrates your vocal strengths, but also require a working proficiency in the rep that challenges you. Young singers often seek the hardest, flashiest music for auditions. The histrionics are a thrill, but there is great value in singing simpler songs that can be technically nailed. The following art songs are offered as the best of both worlds: the thrill of the unexpected, with musical components you can learn to sing perfectly.


“In darkness let me dwell” by John Dowland (1563-1623)

Vocal Literature courses often begin with the English Lutenists. John Dowland is one of the best-known composers of this genre and his melodic ayres offer an excellent study for singers striving for consistent tonal production in the mid vocal range. “In darkness” boasts a beautiful poem and a melancholy melody employing dramatic suspensions. This ayre may be sung with piano or guitar, but is best served with traditional instrumentation playing the figured bass. Music available on


“An Evening Hymn” by Henry Purcell (1659-1695) and “Under the greenwood tree” by Thomas Arne (1710-1778)

Baroque vocal music requires excellent intonation, agility and expressive enunciation. “An Evening Hymn” is an elegant and challenging recital song that can double as a solo for church. Purcell’s masterful text painting unearths a wondrous emotional range. Faber Music published an excellent Purcell edition with piano realization by Thomas Adès: Four Songs for voice and piano. “Under the greenwood tree” displays Shakespearean text with an English sensibility and graceful melody well suited for tenors. Arne was a prolific theatre composer with a keen understanding of orchestration and writing for voices. Available from Classical Vocal Reprints Thomas A. Arne: Twenty Songs.


“Home! Sweet Home!” by Henry Bishop (1787-1855)

This incredible English tune by the first musician to be knighted is packed with history. Over a hundred years before Dorothy clicked her heels and repeated, “There’s no place like home,” Sir Henry Bishop set John Howard Payne’s lyrics to a sentimental melody. American composer Gottschock arranged the tune and played it for audiences his entire career and the song became a favorite of soldiers in the Civil War. Available from Classical Vocal Reprints in Bishop: Twenty Songs.


“Autumn Evening” by Roger Quilter (1877-1953)

Quilter’s art songs are elegant and display the graceful mark of a well-educated Englishman. Quilter was a philanthropist and unburdened by a need to make a living. Perhaps this freedom allowed him the time to set his favorite poetry to music with such artistry. “Autumn Evening” is a quiet song of ravenous beauty for both the voice and piano parts. Available in high or low keys in the Hal Leonard’s edition of Roger Quilter: 55 Songs.


“My soul is an enchanted boat” and “So we’ll go no more a-roving” by Maude Valerie White (1855-1937)

Maude Valerie White was a British composer of songs in English, Italian, French, German and Swedish and was the first woman to be awarded the Mendelssohn Scholarship. The first edition of Grove’s Dictionary hailed “My soul” as “one of the best in our language.” Available on

“Roving” expertly delivers charm and excitement with musical development that offers a wonderful scene for a mezzo with high notes. Available for individual purchase from Classical Vocal Reprints. I list two of her songs with hope that readers will champion this composer and give her lesser-known songs the audience they deserve. 


“A Perfect Day” by Carrie Jacobs Bond (1862-1946)

Carrie Jacobs Bond was the first American woman composer to make a million dollars…you go girl! She composed heartfelt songs that embody the Americana sound and she began a publishing company to distribute her work. She wrote the poem and music for “A Perfect Day” with violin obligato, which is a lovely recital closer and an opportunity to fulfill a chamber music requirement. Available as an individual song through Classical Vocal Reprints.


“Willow Song” by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)

Coleridge-Taylor composed beautiful music in his short life. The British composer preferred to identify as Anglo-African and worked as an activist against racial prejudice. “Willow Song” offers a soaring melody for Shakespeare’s text that comes with extra credit for ear training in the form of a melismatic vocalise through the passagio. This gem is published in Joan Boytim’s First Book of Soprano Solos, part III.  


“Song to the dark virgin” by Florence Price (1887-1953) and “Hold the wind!” by Margaret Bonds (1913-1972)

Florence Price was the first Black woman to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra (Chicago Symphony) and her student Margaret Bonds was the first Black American to perform with the Chicago Symphony. Price composed over 300 works in a style that reflects both European music history and the folk sounds and rhythms in African-American spirituals. Price’s setting of Langston Hughes’s poem “Song to the dark virgin” is printed in the anthology 44 Art Songs and Spirituals by Florence Price. Bonds composed sophisticated art songs and arranged spirituals that were heralded by Leontyne Price. “Hold the wind!” is perfect for young voices and is available in high and low keys in the recently published anthology Rediscovering Margaret Bonds.

“The Gambler’s Wife” and “The Gambler’s Lament” by John Jacob Niles (1892-1980)

Folk song arrangements are often a first assignment for voice students because they proffer memorable tunes with a wide expanse of emotions. John Jacob Niles composed the holy grail of expressive output for singers. Niles studied folksongs from an early age and after serving in World War I, he studied in Lyon, Paris and the Cincinnati Conservatory. “The Gambler’s Wife” is a wistful ballad for female voices and the “Lament” is a striking, dramatic work for male voices. These songs and more audition favorites can be found in The Songs of John Jacob Niles.


“Acquainted with the night” by John Duke (1899-1984)

John Duke was a concert pianist and college professor who composed over 265 art songs and was quoted as saying he believed “vocal utterance is the basis of music’s mystery.” His music is simply wonderful to sing—in his collection one can find humor, drama, storytelling and romance. His setting of the Robert Frost poem “Acquainted with the night” follows Duke’s stated creed by creating an atmosphere of sultry mystery with a difficulty level suitable for an advanced upperclassman/graduate student and is available for individual purchase at Classical Vocal Reprints.


“Music When Soft Voices Die” by Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

Samuel Barber was a child prodigy and entered Curtis at the age of 14. His romantic and epic songs are staples in the vocal repertoire. Every singer should learn “Sure on this shining night” but pray you don’t stop there. “Music When Soft Voices Die” is a brief two-page song that magically weaves this well-known poem aloft an almost hymn-like chord progression. This song extends an instant gratification rarely found in classical singing—a “let go and let God” opportunity!  Available in high or low editions of the Schirmer Samuel Barber: 55 Songs.


“In the beginning” from Gods and Cats by Jake Heggie (b.1961)

Jake Heggie is America’s most prolific modern opera and art song composer. His folk songs arrangements from 1995 are profound and since then, his operas and art songs have been performed globally. “In the beginning” can be heard by mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton on the album Unexpected Shadows. The song incorporates a jazzy playfulness that requires skillful technique, but offers an enjoyable return on your investment. Available from Hal Leonard The Faces of Love: The Songs of Jake Heggie.


Ciao until January for Unexpected Vocal Literature Part Two: Italian.


NASM Handbook Guidelines for Singers: 

The NASM Handbook has a thorough list of detailed objectives for earning music degrees. Competency as a performer is the goal. Vocal performance majors have six basic guidelines:

1. Technical skills requisite for artistic self-expression in at least one major performance area at a level appropriate for the particular music concentration. 

2. An overview understanding of the repertory in their major performance area and the ability to perform from a cross-section of that repertory. 

3. The ability to read at sight with fluency demonstrating both general musicianship and, in the major performance area, a level of skill relevant to professional standards appropriate for the particular music concentration. 

4. Knowledge and skills sufficient to work as a leader and in collaboration on matters of musical interpretation. Rehearsal and conducting skills are required as appropriate to the particular music concentration. 

5. Keyboard competency. 

6. Growth in artistry, technical skills, collaborative competence and knowledge of repertory through regular ensemble experiences. Ensembles should be varied both in size and nature. 

National Association of Schools of Music Handbook 2021-22

Christi Amonson

Christi Amonson is a soprano, a stage director, a curious reader/writer, a professor of voice and opera at The College of Idaho, and a curator of food, hugs, and good times for her family.