On the eve of many Performing Arts institutions starting classes for the year, I thought I would write a little something for the people entering into a classical degree. Now if you aren’t someone who is starting a degree in classical voice tomorrow or in the near-distant future, please do not stop reading now! I mainly want to share some of the greatest classical music (in my opinion, of course) ever written for the voice. But I also want to clarify one of the greatest misconceptions in the world of classical vocal music – it’s not all about opera!

There is an interesting phenomenon in young students entering into classical vocal degrees that I’ve experienced, my friends have experienced, and I have seen in countless young singers after me. This is a phenomenon of not knowing what the hell to expect in a classical voice degree. I entered my Bachelor of Music straight out of high school, where I was extremely passionate about classical music but had no idea what I would be singing in the following three years of my degree. I was blindly following the assumption that I would be in very capable hands and that I would be steered in the right direction. Thank god I was right. But the one misconception that I’ve mentioned exists in the mind of young singers and I would like to address that.

Opera often steals the limelight in the world of classical vocal music, and I can see why. Opera as a genre is mammoth – such high demands on vocal technique, the hardest singing in the vocal repertoire, with acting and movement equally important to keep a performance engaging. All of this expected to carry over an orchestra! This brings me to my point though: opera is a genre, and it isn’t the entirety of the vocal repertoire. And simply because of such high demands on technique, young singers entering a vocal degree just aren’t ready to sing these famous opera arias that we all know and love and hear on TV ads. So what do we sing in the meantime? We sing many different genres of classical music, but one genre dominates above all others, and for good reason – Art Song.

What is Art Song? A simple definition is a musical setting of an independent poem or set of poems. Art Song became very popular during the 19th Century as music became more accessible to the lower-middle class in Europe, when pianos became affordable to have in the everyday home. Composers answered the public demand to write music they could all enjoy away from the concert hall in the comfort of their own home. The song tradition only grew stronger throughout the 20th Century and there is such a plethora of fantastic music written for the voice that is performed regularly today.

Art Song is one of my great passions and I just want to take this opportunity to share some of my personal favourites – hopefully you’ll enjoy these as much as I do.

Where would Art Song be without the music of Franz Schubert? The answer to that is nowhere. Schubert was a master of the German Lied (Lied = German for song) and wrote over 600 songs in his short life. Enjoy one of his greatest masterpieces, Der Erlkönig (The Elf King), with an incredible performance by arguably the greatest Lieder singer that has ever lived, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Massive props to the accompanist in this recording as well, the inimitable Gerald Moore. This piano part is considered one of the most ruthless challenges in the entire repertoire – you’ll see why!

NOTE: If you don’t speak German you’ll probably want to read the translation (available on the Wikipedia page to really follow the story.

We move countries now to France, where Charles Gounod was one of the first French composers to have an influential output of French Mélodies (Mélodie = French for song). You’ll find that each of these pieces have different characteristics as we move from country to country, which is what makes Art Song so broad and interesting. Now this next piece isn’t Gounod’s most famous but it is my personal favourite. Gounod himself wrote the poem as well as the music, potentially as a gift in concession to his wife after a rumoured messy affair in London (gasp!), but we will never know. This is L’absent (The Absent One), performed by arguably the greatest Mélodie singer in history Gérard Souzay, with Dalton Baldwin on piano.

NOTE: English translation here

Off to Italy now, to another of my favourite composers Francesco Paolo Tosti. Italian Art Song is very different again to German and French but never the less incredibly beautiful and passionate. This next piece is Ideale (Ideal), a song to a lover. This is none other than THE man, Luciano Pavarotti, with American accompanist John Wustman at the piano.

NOTE: English translation here

Finally, we arrive at English Art Song! There are some truly beautiful English Art Songs out there, and I had extreme trouble trying to pick only one to share (it’s been a struggle to only pick one for each of these!) but I arrived and the one closest to my heart. This is a setting of a Dante Gabriel Rossetti poem, Silent Noon, by Ralph Vaughan Williams. This was the first song I ever heard that stopped me in my tracks for 5 minutes and completely transported me to another place. Here it is, performed by one of my very favourites, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, accompanied by David Willison.

NOTE: Poem here

So to everyone out there entering into a classical degree, don’t be disappointed that you won’t be singing Nessun Dorma or O Mio Babbino Caro just yet, you have ALL of this incredible music to look forward to. And to everyone that is willing to give classical music a crack, I beg you to have a listen and check out the incredible gems that are available in the Art Song repertoire – classical voice is NOT all about opera (although opera is pretty great too).

Written by Louis Hurley

Further listening for all you keen beans out there:

Franz Schubert – Gretchen am Spinnrade (Barbara Bonney & Geoffrey Parsons)

Robert Schumann – Frauenliebe und -leben (Janet Baket & Graham Johnson)

Gabriel Fauré – Clair de lune (Gérard Souzay & Jacqueline Bonneau)

Claude Debussy – Nuit D’étoiles (Natalie Dessay & Philippe Cassard)

Stefano Donaudy – O Del Mio Amato Ben (Luciano Pavarotti & Leone Magiera)

Gioachino Rossini – La Regata Veneziana (Joyce DiDonato & David Zobel)

Gerald Finzi – Come Away, Death! (Bryn Terfel & Malcolm Martineau)

Benjamin Britten – Sephestia’s Lullaby (Alice Coote & Graham Johnson)