There are many forms that the accompaniment for an art song may take, but the most composed for and used is the piano. The art song and piano are a marriage made in heaven.
A little background.
The art song began to flower during the Classical Period of western music and came into full blossom during the Romantic Era. It has continued from then to now as a staple in every vocal performer of any note. In the Classical and Romantic eras the art song recital was more of a chamber presentation. Quite often the nobility or well-to-do citizens would have a gathering and would have a performance by a musician of some type. When the performer was a vocalist it was not viable to have an orchestra even if it were a chamber orchestra. So, the accompaniment of choice was the piano.
In the beginning the accompaniment was probably not much more than a chordal underpinning. But as the genre continued to develop composers became more elaborate in their accompaniments.
Beginning as early as Mozart we see the composer beginning to use the accompaniment as a mood setter. This is done by flowing passages of arpeggiated chords, by marcato marching chords, or by tiptoeing staccato scale runs. As one listens to the art songs of the masters one soon comes to the realization that it is not a solo singer presentation but a duet of a singer and the piano accompaniment. It is true that many art songs have been transcribed to have orchestral accompaniments but the truest rendition of the work is found in its’ performance with the piano.
There are times in art songs that it seems that the piano and the voice are in opposition to one another. There seems to be a tug-of-war going on. Take for example the song number seven in Schubert’s song cycle Die Schoene Muellerin. The accompaniment enters playing eighth note triplets and does not let up until the last measure and the last measure of the song. The vocal line in contrast pursues a rhythm of dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth note on the verse and lengthens it a little with a half-note followed by a dotted eighth and sixteenth again. The vocal line is further contrasted to the accompaniment by its’ legato floe even though it has the dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth note rhythm. The different approaches produce an agitation which so well sets forth the eager willingness of the lover’s desire to proclaim “Thine is my heart, Thine is my heart, and will stay thine forever.” Even without the words the message would come through.
Just as the accompaniment in the piano can be antagonist it can just as well be protagonist. In the same song cycle of Schubert mentioned above there is the song “Wohin?”
The piano introduces the scene with what can only be called the rippling of a mountain stream. The right hand of the accompaniment begins playing sextuplets built of the chord of progression and continues this rhythm to the end of the song. The left hand is bouncing down and up and down and up almost all the way through the song. On occasion the left hand introduces a step wise progression but only for a moment and right back to the down and up and down and up. If one closes one’s eyes he could easily visualize that rippling mountain stream.
The vocal line is flowing and lyrical. It bubbles along just above the rippling mountain stream.
It would not be the same song if the two were not so fitly joined together.
As we have seen how well the art song and the piano have worked so well together, the question might arise, “Could the art song have developed as it has if the piano had not been invented?”
That is a viable question. If one considers the alternatives to the piano, which were the harpsichord and the clavichord, one might think that the art song would never have reached the level of artistic performance that it has. Neither the harpsichord nor the clavichord has anywhere near the range of expression of the pianoforte. In fact the piano draws its’ name from the wide range of expression that it brought to a keyboard instrument. With the addition of the sustain pedal and its’ middle brother along with the una chorda, the piano has a broad range of expression. It can stand alone in the emotions and expressions it can evoke.
I am sure that much more could be added to this conversation. Without a doubt the art song and piano compliment each other greatly. The piano will long continue to be the choice of art song singers. It will be the choice of composers, too.