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A song cycle is a group, or cycle, of songs designed to be performed in a sequence as a single entity. As a rule, all of the songs are by the same composer and often use words from the same poet or lyricist. Unification can be achieved by a narrative or a persona common to the songs, or even, as in Robert Schumann's second Liederkreis (Op. 39), by the atmospheric setting of the forest. The unity of the cycle is often underlined by musical means, famously in the return in the last song of the opening music in Ludwig van Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte.
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The first generally accepted example of a song cycle is Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte (Op. 98, 1816), along with the song cycle Die Temperamente beim Verluste der Geliebten (J. 200-3, \Op. 46, 1816) by Weber.
The genre was firmly established by the cycles of Schubert: his Die schöne Müllerin (1823) and Winterreise (1827), based on poems by Wilhelm Müller, are among his most greatly admired works. Schubert's Schwanengesang (1828), though collected posthumously, is also frequently performed as a cycle.
Schumann's great cycles were all composed in 1840. They comprise Dichterliebe, Frauenliebe und -leben, two collections entitled Liederkreis (Opp. 24 & 39 on texts by Heinrich Heine and Eichendorf respectively) - a German word meaning a song cycle - and the Kerner Lieder (Op. 35), a Liederreihe (literally "song row") on poems by Justinus Kerner. Brahms composed settings (Op. 33) of verses from Ludwig Tieck's novel "Magelone", and modern performances usually include some sort of connecting narration. He also wrote Vier ernste Gesänge ("Four Serious Songs"), Op. 121 (1896). Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Kindertotenlieder, and Das Lied von der Erde expand the accompaniment from piano to orchestra.
Wolf made the composition of song collections by a single poet something of a speciality although only the shorter Italian Songbook and Spanish Songbook are performed at a single sitting, and Eisler's Hollywood Liederbuch also falls into the category of anthology.
Das Buch der hängenden Gärten by Schoenberg and Krenek's Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen are important 20th century examples, and the tradition is carried on by Wolfgang Rihm, with so far a dozen works.
Berlioz's Les nuits d'été (1841) pioneered the use of the orchestra, and the French cycle reached a pinnacle in Fauré's La bonne chanson, La chanson d'Ève and L'horizon chimérique and later in the works of Poulenc. Recent masterpieces such as Poèmes pour Mi, Chants de terre et de ciel and Harawi by Messiaen, and Paroles tissées and Chantefleurs et Chantefables by Lutosławski should also be mentioned.
Perhaps the first English song cycle was Sullivan's The Window; or, The Song of the Wrens (1871), to a text of eleven poems by Tennyson. The composer and renowned Lieder accompanist Britten also wrote cycles that are among the glories of the literature, including The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, 7 Sonnets of Michelangelo, Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente, and Winter Words, all with piano accompaniment, and the orchestral Les Illuminations, Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, and Nocturne. Other examples include Vaughan Williams' Songs of Travel, Barber's Hermit Songs (1953) and Despite and Still, and Songfest by Bernstein, Hammarskjöld Portrait (1974), Les Olympiques (1976), Tribute to a Hero (1981), Next Year in Jerusalem (1985), and A Year of Birds (1995) by Williamson, Honey and Rue by Previn (composed for the American soprano Kathleen Battle) and Raising Sparks by MacMillan (1997).
Cycles in other languages have been written by Granados, Mohammed Fairouz, Cristiano Melli, Falla, Juan María Solare, Grieg, Lorenzo Ferrero, Dvořák, Janáček, Bartók, Kodály, Sibelius, Rautavaara, Mompou, Montsalvatge, Nevit Kodalı and A. Saygun etc.
Song cycles written by popular musicians are a short series of songs that tell a story or focus on a particular theme. Some musicians also blend tracks together, so that the start of the next song continues from the preceding one. Modern examples of this can be found in James Pankow's rock opera Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon (for Chicago on their self-titled second album) and Pink Floyd's own rock epic The Wall, as well as Marvin Gaye's classic soul album What's Going On. Other examples include Arcade Fire's album The Suburbs and The Moody Blues symphonic rock album Days of Future Past
Song-cycle musical theater works are becoming extremely popular among both composers and fans of the genre. One of the earliest was "December Songs", created by Maury Yeston, and commissioned by Carnegie Hall for its Centennial celebration. They have been translated and performed in both French and German. Other examples include Songs for a New World by Jason Robert Brown, William Finn's Elegies, Bill Russell's Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, and Myths and Hymns by Adam Guettel.
Ruth O. Bingham, "The Early Nineteenth-Century Song Cycle", in The Cambridge Companion to the Lied, ed. James Parsons (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 101–119.
- "Troika: Russia's westerly poetry in three orchestral song cycles", Rideau Rouge Records, ASIN: B005USB24A, 2011, liner notes, p. 4