“Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought. And that is the great advantage.”
- Yip Harburg
I've been writing songs now, on and off, for over thirty years, and it seems like there is always one more thought to pair with one more feeling, thanks to the wealth of fine poetry in our literature.
Art song (for want of a better term) is really a composer's way of reciting a poem. Nowadays, poems are so often quietly read from books, magazines and electronic devices, we forget that from its origin in pre-history, poetry is meant to be heard aloud. The song recital (and I emphasize the original meaning of that word) is one of the few places one can still experience the sound of a poem.
For a beginning composer, songs are a natural place to start out: they're generally not long, the structure is inherent, and they're easy to disseminate and program. To quote that indispensable purveyor of song, pianist Graham Johnson, “...all that is needed is a voice and a piano and a great deal of imagination on both sides of the platform.” The challenge: combining the idiosyncrasies of an industrial revolution contraption (the piano) with the world's oldest instrument (the voice).
There are indeed more popular entertainments than the vocal recital - certainly it's not the stuff of stadium concerts, nor should it be. It is a quiet endeavor, this intimate communion between composer and poem, singer, and pianist, and all the above with the audience. And I believe there will always be a place for it.
So long as there are thoughts to be felt, there will be songs.
*The white six-volume set of Collected Songs supersedes the red and blue books for accuracy and content.