The Music Major Minute : Bach to School: Art Songs You Can Handle

The Music Major Minute : Bach to School: Art Songs You Can Handle

Every new semester requires singers to learn new repertoire. University music majors work toward a jury every semester, which presents the opportunity/requirement to learn new art songs. Choose your rep carefully as each song will require hours of practice and many lessons. Sometimes I find songs for students that pique their interest because they are new or unknown. I have always enjoyed programming music that is off the beaten track.
As a student of singing, your teacher will guide you to the important composers of various styles that fulfill your academic requirements—but there is always room for one special song that offers an element of surprise if no one else in your studio has sung it. In this article, I will introduce some lesser-known art songs by classic composers which are excellent for developing healthy vocal technique and, in my opinion, are not sung as often as they deserve.

Liza Lehmann (1862-1918) was an English composer whose songs will both charm and challenge you. Lehmann’s songs are tonal with memorable melodies and piano accompaniments that set the mood of the piece and compliment the text without overshadowing the tender or comedic moments. From the coloratura displays in Bird Songs to her story-telling strophic songs such as “If No One Ever Marries Me” or “There Are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden,” we find both tender and comedic songs that will delight your audience.

The aforementioned songs are better suited to female voices, so I feel obligated to mention In a Persian Garden, which is a song cycle for SATB solo voices that includes quartets and solos. The work offers a touch of the exotic style which the English found so dear during the turn of the century, so . . . quick! Call your quartet-worthy friends and plan a memorable performance for your department convocation or senior recital.

Lehmann’s songs are the epitome of delightful melodic English art songs, and each has a soaring high note or extended phrase length that requires solid vocal technique in order to deliver a performance worthy of the composition.

Stefano Donaudy (1879-1925) grew up in Palermo, Italy, and is known for his “antique style,” meaning arias, ballads, madrigals, etc. His entire collection of songs is published as 36 Arie di Stile Antico. If you want to venture beyond the 24 Italian Songs & Arias, Donaudy is an excellent composer to study. He primarily wrote for the voice in the Bel Canto style.

These songs are wonderful studies because they are short and memorable, and each is an example of that simple, perfect Italian operatic style so many singers aspire to master. Donaudy composed “Vaghissima sembianza” at the age of 13. I dare you to hate this song; it is a wonderful choice for a NATS competition or recital because no one hates it. (This claim is true, because I hate lots of songs, and this isn’t one of them!) It begins with the piano introducing the theme, and then the voice part presents a sentimental melody while singing about gazing at a painting of a woman that bears a resemblance to a former lover—thus the title, “Vague Semblance.”

One of my favorite songs with a tantalizing and inviting melody is Donaudy’s “Amorosi miei giorni” (“I love my life”), which requires a seamless connection to the low register and allows the singer to (figuratively) pour olive oil all over the phrases by generously making the most of each and every rallentando and fermata. Another song I wish more singers would offer is “O bei nidi d’amore” (“O beautiful nests of love”). This song offers a sense of nobility with a melody that doesn’t leap but gently moves up and down the scale, requiring technical ease through the passaggio in order to resonate evenly on every tone. On a personal note, I think this is one of those songs that is so stunning, it makes every singer sound even better than they actually are.

Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947) was born in Venezuela but moved to Paris, where he composed, performed, taught, directed opera, and lectured. These lectures have been compiled in his book, On Singers and Singing.

A few of his art songs are well known, but there are so many more that are ravishing, simple, short, and perfect for singers of all ages and abilities. I often hear “Si mes vers avaient des ailes” and “L’Heure exquise”—but if you listen to Susan Graham’s album La Belle Époque, you will likely find some new favorites and, like me, you might become irrationally obsessed with Ms. Graham (it is inevitable, really). Hahn’s art songs are absolute treasures. Following are introductions to two songs I love.

“L’énamourée” (“The enamored”) is an exquisite mélodie (French art song) that requires supported, resonant tones through the middle range, and the ability to float the unexpected high notes when the text reveals the lament for a ghostly lover. Many of Hahn’s songs, including this one, employ conversational settings of the text. It is a marvelous reason to work on your French diction and master your breath for phrasing that supports the language.

“À Chloris” (“To Chloris”) is one of the most graceful and gorgeous melodies one can imagine. The piano accompaniment features a melody with Baroque turns that can break your heart. The bass line borrows from Bach’s “Air on the G String,” which adds both grandeur and the element of recognition to this song. British pianist Graham Johnson wrote for Hyperion Records, “‘À Chloris’ is beyond doubt the summit of Reynaldo Hahn’s art as a pasticheur, and it ranks as perhaps the most successful example of musical time-travelling in the French mélodie repertoire” (

Peter Cornelius (1824-1874) was a German poet and composer who studied with Liszt and later worked as the personal répétiteur for Wagner.

Cornelius composed a few operas with his own libretti and song cycles to his own poetry. Of course most music majors should sing and study Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Wolf, and Strauss. The choices for German Lieder are seemingly unlimited, but I have always been on the hunt for interesting music by lesser-known composers.

I fell in love with the songs of Cornelius when my undergraduate teacher introduced me to his song cycle Brautlieder (Bridal Songs). In this cycle, Cornelius sets his own poetry about a bride preparing for her wedding. It begins with planting a myrtle for her wedding wreath, moves on to describe her longing for the morning of her wedding day, and culminates in embracing the day she will vow her God-like love to her groom. Cornelius’ piano accompaniment elegantly accompanies the vocal line—remaining light in texture so that the voice is complimented by the piano, not overshadowed.

Complete song cycles may seem daunting to young singers because, let’s face it, it can be a lot of music to learn. Brautlieder is accessible for undergraduate recitals, with music that students can relate to and perform well. Each movement is fairly short and the melodies are memorable. It is not “easy” music; rather, it offers an appealing challenge for the ambitious student. The experience of developing a character musically and dramatically throughout a full song cycle is an important step in a singer’s training.

It is easier than ever to look for music with YouTube and online music sources. As always, if you aren’t sure where to find the sheet music to something new, call Classical Vocal Reprints and #GetItFromGlendower! Talk with your teacher about choosing music that excites you and sends you straight to the practice room. Above, I offered examples of English, Italian, French, and German art songs. Following is a quick list of 10 more crowd pleasers.

Tom Cipullo
“Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House”
Histrionic monologue about the frustrations over the neighbor’s barking dog
Cleverly quotes Beethoven melodies

Mild profanity
Richard Hundley
“Screw Spring”
Rhythmic and witty song about a frustrated young woman who isn’t blooming

Make ’em cry
Kirke Mechem
“Dear Husband”
A letter from an enslaved woman to her husband

Lullaby not by Brahms
John Alden Carpenter
“When I Bring to You Colour’d Toys”
Simple, sweet, stunning
A must for all babysitters

Song about cats and double entendres
Arnold Schoenberg
“Der genügsame Liebhaber”
From Brettl-Lieder (Cabaret Songs)
A man loves a woman with a silky black cat in her lap

Child’s perspective
Leonard Bernstein
“Who Am I?”
One of Wendy’s songs from the unfinished musical of Peter Pan

Sultry Spanish
Fernando Obradors
“El vito”
Spanish dance rhythms
“Come hither” approach required

Another moon song
Erich Korngold
“Mond, so gehst du wieder auf”
Richly textured accompaniment invokes a mournful prayer

Show off dem high notes
John Duke
“A Piper”
Begins and ends with high vocalise
Tells a story in the middle, making this song charming and showy

Perfect Italian song
Paolo Tosti
“Non t’amo più”
Nostalgic display of emotion
Words say, “I don’t love you” but the music suggests otherwise

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.