Lieder, or Art Song in English, was an incredibly popular form of vocal music back in 18th- and 19th-century Germany, combining pre-existing poetry with newly inspired melodic and harmonic materials. Compared with the other genres of music popular at that time, however, Art Song was considered small, literally, but this was one of its greatest advantages.

The food chain of 18th- and 19th-century German music.

The prominent themes of 18th- and 19th-century Romanticism from the original poetry were perfectly contained within these two-to-five-minute songs, making them easily accessible to practically anybody. It didn’t matter if you were an amateur musician or a professional; everybody enjoyed Lieder. Since that time, however, this popularity has become marginalized. Nowadays, the average life cycle for a career in Art Song is only about as long as a two- or four-year university program in classical voice or collaborative piano with seldom anything after that, unless you’re willing to expand your circles to more popular genres of classical voice, such as opera and music theatre, but why is that?

For this study, we chose to investigate the manner in which this music is being performed, the Art Song recital, as opposed to the music itself. Taking a look at the Art Song recital, we can see why watching somebody sing 200-year-old songs in a foreign language may not be the most enticing offer for modern-day audiences, certainly not for those outside the realm of classical music.

“… a tenor in a tux, standing stiffly in front of a shiny black Steinway – makes for an ill fit with 21st-century mores.” (Varty, “SONGFIRE festival puts poetry into musical motion,” 2013)

But beyond German Lieder and the Art Song recital, classical music isn’t fairing much better in today’s market.

According to the National Endowment for the Arts, a gradual decline has been observed in the number of adults attending “benchmark” activities since 1982. This includes jazz, classical music, opera, both musical and non-musical plays, ballet, and art museums or galleries. From these findings, a number of correlations were discovered, connecting certain demographics with specific benchmark activities (Table 1).

Table 1. Genres of music attended by adults who reported attending any live music performance in the past 12 months: 2012 (National Endowment for the Arts, 2015)

Blue shaded box indicates that the estimate is significantly different from the overall 2012 estimate at the .05 level

In this instance, the only demographic subgroup that showed an increase in audience attendance from 2002 to 2012, interestingly enough for classical music and opera, was older Americans (aged 65 and over). On the opposite end of this spectrum, younger adults, particularly aged 18 to 24, were the least likely to attend these kinds of music events in place of being the most likely to attend such music events as rap and pop/rock, with the latter having the highest percentage of overall attendance for any kind of benchmark activity.

What this evidence suggests is that the overall audience for live classical music is decreasing not simply because of a lack of interest for the artform, but also because of age, but this is only half of the equation when dealing with Art Song, specifically. Let’s not forget that Art Song is a unique synthesis of pre-existing poetry set to newly composed music, so we also have to consider the current relevancy of poetry readership when researching the popularity of Art Song, which can be even more disheartening. In 2012, the Census Bureau of the United States recorded that in 20 years time, from 1992 to 2002, the number of Americans who read poetry (defined as “read a work of poetry [written in English] at least once this past year”) had dropped from 17 percent to 6.7 percent.

It has been said that Art Song provides a unique experience of appreciating both the music and poetry across hundreds of years and from various cultures. Unfortunately, with both classical music and poetry struggling to maintain a substantive audience, it only follows that Art Song is struggling to make any headway in today’s classical performance circles, so how do we fix this?

Concerned for the wellbeing of the Art Song recital? Let us know what you think!

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