Art Song

Art song. Setting of a poem, typically for voice and piano and of a high aesthetic intent.
Setting of a poem, typically for voice and piano and of a high aesthetic intent. As can be seen from the Canadian Music Centre catalogue Canadian Vocal Music/Musique vocale canadienne or the Catalogue of Canadian Composers and Contemporary Canadian Composers/ Compositeurs canadiens contemporains, most Canadian composers have written art songs. By 1991 the CMCentre had more than 700 art songs for voice and piano and nearly 250 song cycles in its catalogue.

Perhaps the earliest report indicating that the art song was cultivated in Canada appears in August Ludwig von Schlözer's Vertrauliche Briefe aus Kanada und Neu-England vom Jahre 1777 und 1778 (Göttingen 1779). In his fourth letter Schlözer describes a party (for the queen's birthday, 20 Jan 1777) given in Trois-Rivières by Baron von Riedesel, the commander of the loyalist mercenaries: 'You should know, dear sir, that the Canadian belles sing Italian and French chansons at dinner; and that several chansons already have been written and set to music in honour of General von Riedesel and frequently are sung in Trois-Rivières'. Unfortunately, neither the music nor the name(s) of its composer(s) has survived. Late-18th-century newspapers show that music teachers taught 'vocal music,' that dealers imported vocal sheet music, and that performers gave concerts of vocal music, usually, however, operatic.

See also Folk-music-inspired composition.

Songs To English Texts

Vocal compositions were the most popular type of music available prior to 1867. The earliest Canadian art songs in English surviving in print are two canzonets by Stephen Codman for coloratura soprano and piano published ca 1827. Both are elaborate display pieces reflecting the influences of contemporary opera. The publication of separate songs in sheet-music format with piano accompaniment began in Canada when J.F. Lehman's setting of 'The Merry Bells of England' was published by John Lovell in 1840. Its simple keyboard accompaniment and strophic setting typified the songs of this period as did J.P. Clarke's Lays of the Maple Leaf or Songs of Canada (Nordheimer 1853), the first song cycle published in Canada.

The main developments of solo song began in the 1830s and 1840s when Canadian literary journals included music. These periodicals became the first means of circulating music to a widely-dispersed public. Typical of more than 150 vocal and keyboard works in The Literary Garland was Susanna Moodie's 'Welcome, welcome little bark,' set to music by J.W. Dunbar Moodie and arranged by W.H. Warren (1841). This song and others of the period express the simple sentiments of the poems with uncomplicated, predominantly diatonic harmonies, strophic settings, limited vocal ranges, and four-bar phrases.

Many anglophone Canadian composers writing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries continued to be influenced by the European art-song tradition, especially the German Lied. Ernest Whyte wrote more than 270 songs, many of which have elaborate Schumannesque piano parts, and W.O. Forsyth wrote works ranging from 'Trust,' reminiscent of Schumann, to 'Frühlingsabend' inspired by the writing of Hugo Wolf. The Album of Six Baritone Songs (1894) written by Clarence Lucas is one of the few extended collections written by a Canadian up to this time. His settings avoid repetitive formats and allow the images and structure of each poem to determine the musical accompaniment. Paul Ambrose, like Forsyth and Lucas, showed the influences of European trends in his more than 200 songs as did Gena Branscombe, the most prominent Canadian-born woman composer writing prior to World War I, in settings such as 'Happiness' (1911) by the poet Eichendorff. Bertha Tamblyn (1877-1954) wrote distinctive songs for children, collections of which - Holly Time Songs (1938) and We Are Seven (1939) - were published by Thompson.

Composers began to develop a Canadian identity principally in their choices of texts. Inspired by William Henry Drummond's narrative ballad, 'The Grand Seigneur,' Percival Illsley in 1896 created a 'Canadian ballad' dedicated to Emma Albani. Laura Lemon's Canadian Song Cycle (1911), Ernest MacMillan's settings of Bliss Carman's Songs from Sappho (1920), and Gena Branscombe's By St Lawrence Water (1921), all illustrate this interest in Canadian poets and themes.

Many anglophone Canadian composers, including Albert Ham, Susie Francis Harrison (composing under the pseudonyms 'Seranus' and 'Gilbert King'), Charles A.E. Harriss, Whyte, Forsyth, and Edward B. Manning, who composed more than 200 songs, modelled their works on Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Wolf; some set to music words by Goethe and Heine, and other German poets. British-born composers active in Canada, such as Healey Willan and Leo Smith, found their inspiration in the poetry of Yeats, Browning, Herrick, Keats, or Tennyson. Other song composers of the first half of the 20th century included W.H. Anderson (many to verses by Canadian poets), George Brewer, Edward Broome, William France, and Barbara Pentland.

Canadian composers of the 1930s and 1940s gradually absorbed new influences which liberated their music from European moulds. Polytonality, serialism, modal and exotic scales, and the rich Canadian heritage of folk material (both European and native) have been integrated in the modern Canadian song. Weinzweig and Somers have written their own words, on occasion. Somers, notably in Evocations, has explored in some depth new vocal techniques, as have Anhalt and others. Indeed, much writing in the 1970s tended to eschew or subdue the human and literary elements of the art song in favour of more abstract and exotic tendencies.

True song cycles, rarely composed by Canadians before the 1920s, subsequently became more frequent. Composers in the later 20th century have seemed more responsive to the challenge of uniting word and music over the extended span which characterizes the cycle. Among 20th-century Canadians who have published sets or cycles of songs in English with piano or other instruments are Anhalt (Foci, Berandol 1972), Michael C. Baker (Three Lyric Songs, No. 3, Leslie 1979), Beckwith (Five Lyrics of the T'ang Dynasty, BMIC 1949; Four Songs to Poems by e.e. cummings, Waterloo 1975), Bissell (Two Songs of Farewell, Waterloo 1963; Hymns of the Chinese Kings, Waterloo 1968; Six Maritime Folk Songs, Berandol 1970; Six Folk Songs From Eastern Canada, Boosey & Hawkes 1971), Blomfield Holt (Three Songs of Contemplation, Berandol 1970), Chatman (Seven Songs, Berandol 1979); Fisher (Two Last Words, Seesaw 1985); Fleming (The Confession Stone, Leeds 1968), Glick (... i never saw another butterfly..., Leeds 1972), Johnston (The Irish Book, Waterloo 1971), Kasemets (Three Miniatures, BMIC 1960), Kunz (Love, Death, and Full Moon Nights, English and German Songs, Second Book of Solo Songs, all AKM), Naylor (Speaking from the Snow, Robertson 1974), Schafer (Minnelieder, Berandol 1970; Kinderlieder, Berandol 1970), and Somers (Five Songs for Dark Voice, Berandol 1972; Twelve Miniatures, BMIC 1965; Evocations, Berandol 1970; Three Songs, Berandol 1980). Others in the mid- and late-20th century who have contributed significantly to the literature of solo songs with piano or instrumental accompaniment include V. Archer, L. Betts, Bottenberg, Brott, Buczynski, Buhr, Burritt, Coulthard, Duncan, Eggleston, Freedman, Gayfer, Haworth, Healey, William Jordan, Klein, Komorous, MacNutt, B.Mather, Morawetz, Welford Russell, Weinzweig, Weisgarber, Wilson, and Zuckert.

Some 60 19th-century songs to English texts have been reprinted in CMH,vol 3.

Songs To French Texts

The art song was developed from 1830 to the present day in France and, by association, in French Canada, for a middle class eager for both an intimate and a national art form. The art song originated in the drawing-room ballads of the 18th century. It freed itself from these in the course of the following century, principally through the influence of German Lieder, and in particular that of Schubert. The ballad was at its height in Canada for more that 50 years, and even later, with Napoléon Aubin, NapoléonCrépault, Antoine Dessane, Jean-Baptiste Labelle, Calixa Lavallée, Ernest Lavigne, Célestin Lavigueur, Charles Wugk Sabatier, and Charles Sauvageau. In these works the attention focussed on prosody remained uneven; the individual word was seldom set to music, preference being given to the stanza. The dominant musical element was a sentimental type of melody, while the harmony and the accompaniment adopted the simplest forms.

The first indications of the transition from the ballad to the art song appear in the work of Lavallée, less in the five pieces that he published between 1879 and 1886 than in the preface to the collection of Seize Mélodies pour chant et piano par le comte de Premio-Real (1879): 'The parlour song - which reigned supreme for so many years and left its much too languorous and naïve sounds echoing through our drawing-rooms - has had its day. The constant progress of the art of music has made us more demanding than our fathers, and we avow our preference for the art song because of its harmonic richness and skillful transitions with which the masters of the modern school have been able to embellish it'.

From this time onward we notice greater attention being paid to the choice of texts, which thus contributed to a discernible improvement in the style. The preferred poets are French (Barbier, Carnot, Daudet, Desbordes-Valmore, De Maistre, Desportes, Éluard, Gauthier, Hugo, Lamartine, Mendès, Musset, Rességuier, Silvestre, Sully Prudhomme, Turquety, Valéry, Van Lerberghe, Verlaine), or Canadian (Baillargeon, Choquette, Cinq-Mars, Desaulniers, Ferland, Francoeur, Fréchette, Gill, Lacasse, Lalonde, Lamontagne, Lapointe, Lasnier, Leduc, Legendre, Lemieux, Lozeau, Morin, Nelligan, Rainier, Saint-Denys Garneau, Tremblay); we also find translations of Japanese texts - perhaps in the wake of Stravinsky's Trois Poésies de la lyrique japonaise (1912-13) - in the work of J.-J. Gagnier, Robert Talbot, Rodolphe Mathieu, and François Morel, as well as, around 1955, in that of Alfred Kunz, Harry Somers, and Udo Kasemets, among other English Canadian composers; Serge Garant set the texts of García Lorca.


Concurrently with this movement, composers, starting with Guillaume Couture and Alexis Contant, generally showed greater sensitivity regarding prosody and variety of accompaniment. Contant, who cultivated the vocal arts for more than 30 years, used to advantage several facets of the genre in accordance with the spirit of the text: 'Musique,' for example, calls for a cello concertante and judiciously underlines the words of the text with the music; 'Sur un crucifix,' his last composition, definitely moves away from strophic song, elsewhere dear to the composer, thanks to the adoption of a style close to recitative. Another important contribution was made by Achille Fortier: Rejection of strophic style, a melodic line vigourously supported by a thick and often varied accompaniment, and imaginative harmony are the qualities of those compositions which have come down to us. Nevertheless, the prosody is not free from error, and on the whole little attention is paid to the setting of the word to music. In this regard, the work of Amédée Tremblay is very different. It consists of only two songs printed at the turn of the century, in which the predominant vocal style is the recitative, to a certain extent in opposition to the strophic structure that it retains; the harmonic refinement in his songs, as well as in his harmonization of Canadian folksongs, brings out his original gifts, which did not pass unnoticed by his contemporaries.

Between the Wars

Ignored by such influential composers as Arthur Letondal, Henri Gagnon, Claude Champagne, Léo-Pol Morin, Georges-Émile Tanguay, Hector Gratton, the art song, during the period from the death of Alexis Contant to the first works of Jean Papineau-Couture, was characterized by a variety of idioms. The considerable impetus given to the arrangement of folksongs interfered with the output of more than one composer, in turning aside their attention from the art song. Nevertheless, signs of it remained in the writing of Albertine Morin-Labrecque, Omer Létourneau and, in part, that of François Brassard. In the works of Létourneau, for example, alongside 'Papillons,' which was first published by the revue La Musique, there are almost 30 so-called art songs, of which the simplicity and the subject matter often recall the songs of T. Botrel and A. Larrieu. Furthermore, a piece such as 'Rêves d'enfant' borrows its words and melodic theme from the Breton bard. Their circulation was guaranteed by revues such as La Lyre, among others, and by publication at the composer's expense (offset printing). In all these works the musician shows himelf an adherent of a most conservative breadth of style and tonality. The attitude of Alfred La Liberté, nonetheless one of the most prolific harmonizers of Canadian folksong, is fundamentally different. He embarked on the course of a somewhat unrestrained study, but produced what is perhaps the first Canadian song cycle, Quinze Chansons d'Ève (three of which were published by Max Eschig in 1926, less than 20 years after that of Fauré).

The rejection of all folksong influence led Rodolphe Mathieu 'to conceive of a music completely different (from that of folksong), much more Canadian, perhaps; a boundless music, of broad melodic lines, of sustained rhythms, of rich and varied harmonies, with resonances of the forest, giving a sense of vastness, of the grandiose, in gentleness as well as in strength'. (Parlons... musique). Of the six songs, or groups of songs, which he wrote between 1919 and 1928, Saisons canadiennes is the work which most adequately reflects the state of his writing, which was close to Romanticism. Along with J.-J. Gagnier, Mathieu is one of the only musicians to use texts of his own invention, thus anticipating a procedure which English-Canadian composers Harry Somers and R. Murray Schafer would later borrow. The conventions of Romanticism suited Emiliano Renaud equally well. After publishing his first vocal works with bilingual texts in Boston, he left in manuscript form, among the 30 titles which comprise his catalogue, a group of Six Romances written at different periods. Shortly before his death he dedicated them to the German contralto Sigrid Onegin. The second song of the group, 'Le Pardon' (1931), was particularly suited to the dramatic talents of this celebrated singer, who performed them on more than one occasion. This same decade saw the birth of a series of 60 songs (1934-5) by the Quebec composer Léo Roy on the poems of Nelligan. They were conceived over a period of 10 years; the actual compostion took one entire year. The musicologist Aline Laforest has shown the close connection between the themes of the poems and the melodic structure, the unfolding of which takes into consideration the ideas suggested by the text without nonetheless forming a cycle in a formal sense.

Concurrently with the efforts of certain composers to conceive of the art song on a larger scale, an opposing tendency came to light which consisted not only of writing isolated works (Charles Baudoin, Auguste Descarries, Gabriel Cusson), but also of reducing their dimensions almost to those of aphorisms. 'Rose close' (1916) by Renaud is perhaps the first model of this type, followed by 'Une fleur' (1933 and 1942) by Talbot. This tendency is particularly evident in a dozen songs by Gagnier, written at the time when the musician occupied the position of regional director of music at the CBC (1934-48). In the miniatures of the latter, the strophic song can sometimes make an appearance ('Leid'); more striking is the search for unity by means of repeated motives, a shimmering harmony in the impressionistc style ('Nuits d'été'), conciseness and extreme economy of means.

After 1940

The largest part of the art song repertoire produced between the wars seems to have enjoyed a restricted appeal, and this in spite of the number of professional singers in Quebec at the time. For example, the 10 songs (ca 1929-ca 1948) by Descarries, although well-written, have all remained in manuscript form, as have most of the 14 songs (1919-32) of Talbot. The situation did not change in any significant way at the turn of the 1940s, in spite of the evident signs of interest in the French art song, at least in Montreal: for example, a series of four lecture-recitals, 'Les Liédistes français,' given by Jeanne Desjardins, Marie-Thérese Paquin, and Marcel Valois; or, even more, the series of seven recitals presented in the same period by the pupils of Pauline Donalda. Some important composers, mostly Montrealers, continued nevertheless to interest themselves in the song, often at the dawn of their career.

Six years before the Refus global, it seemed that Papineau-Couture wished to break with the prevailing ideology of Canadian nationalism to which the critics, among others, tended until then to confine the works of native composers, and to put his work on a more international footing. Paradoxically, meanwhile, his first collection of three songs, Eglogues (on a text of P. Baillargeon, 1942) for contralto, flute and piano, appeared in the revue Amériques française three months after the publication of his reflections on the future of music, under the title : 'Que sera la musique canadienne?' The songs, which suggested to John Beckwith a connection with Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé, are written in a neo-classical style. The same holds true for the next cycle, Quatrains (on a text of F. Jammes, 1947), which is characterized by a sophisticated economy of means: 'Espace,' for example, consists of only one melodic phrase, repeated once, one simple rhythmic motive and, for all the harmony, two chords. However, great skill is exhibited in the accompaniment: the notation, sometimes abstract, sometimes descriptive or simply suggestive, plays an important structural role.

Although using different methods, Morel's Quatre Chants japonais ('Chansons des geishas,' 1949) are closely in keeping with the trend established by Papineau-Couture. The cycle introduces a large number of features to the song literature of French Canada. First, the instrumental part sets itself up asin a veritable counterpart to the vocal line, which on occasion it dominates (eg, in no. 1 and 3) and is distinguished by the brilliant and diverse character of its writing. The creation of atmosphere is closely related to the spectacular development of the piano part, as an examination of the sound resources demonstrate (sonorous tone clusters, the use of changing chords and the suggestion of colour, low dynamic intensity, subtle use of the pedal, etc). Moreover, the search for exoticism led the composer to the use of pentatonic and other gapped scales, as well as to the predominance of intervals and harmonies based on the perfect fourth and fifth. The treatment of the voice shows great restraint: phrases are generally made up of very brief fragments and the line has often the appearance of a recitative; only no. 4 uses repeated glissando effects. Six years later, Morel composed Les Rivages perdus (on three poems of W. Lemoyne, 1955-6) which are reminiscent of Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi (1936).

Clermont Pépin wrote only one song cycle (on poems of P. Éluard, 1949). Like the works of Papineau-Couture and Morel, it exhibits a renewed spirit and a transformation of writing techniques. The six short pieces which make up the cycle show a sophisticated harmonic skill serving texts, in turn, of dadaist and surrealist expression. The music (disjunct intervals, in general widely-spaced chords, strongly accentuated rhythms, and a steady metric organization) brings out a feeling of gravity and strength which, apart from several pages of La Liberté, is sufficiently unique in this regard before 1950. Nonetheless, one finds a kind of prolongation of this in two works by André Prévost. After an attempt at a conventional love song (Musiques peintes, three poems of G. Lapointe, 1955), Prévost adopted the meditations of M. Lalonde, 'the doubtful poet of mutilated depths,' in the words of S. Paradis,' and set three of the tenor poems of Geôles, in the same year that he completed Fantasmes Improvisation V, thus pushing his expressive powers to their limits: the climate of violence implied in the poem of L. Vézina-Prévost finds its translation in the opposition between the groan and the shriek embodied in song based on the chromatic scale, the alternating of strongly contrasted movements, vocal effects (glissando and precise pitching of voice, with or without vibrato) and instrumental effects (vibrato or glissando on the strings of the piano, strongly dissonant hammered chords and obsessive rhythms).

The work of Jocelyn Binet and Serge Garant is fundamentally different, even in its musical conception. Jocelyn Binet did not live long enough to continue the promising experiments in which she was engaged in the years immediately following the war ('Les Oiseaux de la mer,' on a poem by Gabriel Charpentier, 1949). As for Garant, he approached song via the inspiration provided by the poetry of Verlaine ('Un grand sommeil noir', 1949), as was the case with several of his contemporaries, André Mathieu, for example. Less than three years later he wrote a part of Concerts sur terre (P. de la Tour du Pin), and 'Et je prierai ta grâce' (Saint-Denys Garneau). In these compositions the composer shows the influence of Messiaen: melodic phrases, spacious, and sometimes elaborated by means of melodic variation, adequately fit the text. The search for variety in the writing expresses itself in changes of tempo, of metre and of accompaniing figures, providing clear connectedness. The harmony is characterized above all by what the composer called an 'unceasing mutation of a series of chords' (Concerts sur terre no. 1 and 2). In 1954 Garant partly renewed his method of writing song form (Caprices, on a poem of García Lorca). The result is an example of 'spirit and of serial writing,' according to the words of the composer. In actual fact, it is the first of Garant's works in this aesthetic. It has two chief characteristics: 'the sound material is constantly renewed, and it is constantly in motion. These works unfold in a universe in perpetual evolution from which all reference points are intentionally abolished, and where there is no role for musical memory. Necessarily, in this music one finds neither themes nor motives, not even recurring textures which could facilitate the task of a music lover'. The contrast with the songs of the years 1951-52 is complete. The movement of the vocal line is disjunct, divided into short units by means of rests, occasionally interspersed with Sprechgesang. The pointillistic writing in the piano part is of great rhythmic and harmonic complexity.

At this stage, the art of composition transgresses the rules of the genre: the decline of the art song is directly related to the relinquishing of the perogatives of romantic music, which it typically manifests, as in its melodic element. It is for this reason that certain works written in a more conservative language, such as Jean Vallerand (Quatre Poèmes de Saint-Denys Garneau, 1954), Maurice Dela ('Xami', 'Ballade,' and 'La Lettre'), Pierre Mercure ('Colloque,' 1948, on a poem of Valéry, Dissidence, 1955, on three poems of Charpentier, reset in Cantate pour une joie, also from 1955), and Alain Gagnon (Opus 3 from 1964, Opus 6 from 1965 and Opus 15 from 1968: 'Que je t'accueille', on a poem of Saint-Denys Garneau), all of which attach an essential importance to the horizontal nature of the vocal line, present fixed points of interest. At the height of its development, the genre always lent itself to the most exquisite refinements; this is demonstrated by two works of one of the greatest modern composers of song, Jacques Hétu: Les Clartés de la nuit (on five poems of Nelligan, 1972), and Les Abîmes du rêve (four poems of Nelligan, 1982), of which the group Les Illusions fanées for chorus (on four poems also by Nelligan) offers an extension of the style. While using a harmonic language characteristic of the 20th century (modality, total chromaticism, polytonality), the two groups of songs composed by Hétu are distinguished by their classical characteristics (balance between text, voice, and instrument, formal balance based on the recurrence of motives). Like Schubert, the song is of a lyrical nature and all of the works contain a prelude and a postlude in the manner of the accompaniment. Also like Schubert, modulations and progressions to the minor third are frequent, as is unobtrusive imagery.

It is hazardous to predict the future of the art song in French Canada. The composition of works belonging to this genre holds little interest for young composers. An examination of the catalogue of Claude Vivier, one of the most promising musicians in the art of vocal composition in the last quarter of the 20th century, makes this evident: not one work belongs to this category. Nonetheless, there are certain hopeful signs: the persistent cult of the French language and its poetry, the gradual return to an accessible musical language, and the search for an balance between the horizontal and vertical levels in composition, favour a renewed interest in a style otherwise threatened with extinction. It is virtually certain, however, that music will give up its traditional and somewhat simplistic role of word painting; it should nonetheless come to the fore again as the pre-eminent vehicle of the composer's feelings in his encounter with poetry.

Help students and educators this school year!

The Canadian Encyclopedia is a project of Historica Canada, a non-profit, nonpartisan organization devoted to teaching Canadians more about our shared country. Last school year, over 13 million people used The Canadian Encyclopedia as a trusted resource. Nearly 5 million of those users were students and teachers. Please donate today to help even more Canadians access free, impartial, fact-checked, regularly updated information about Canada’s history and culture in both official languages. All donations above $3 will receive a tax receipt.