The songs are either for solo voice or an ensemble, or rarely a combination of solo songs mingled with choral pieces. The number of songs in a song cycle may be as brief as two songs or as long as 30 or more songs. The term 'song cycle' did not enter lexicography until 1865, in Arrey von Dommer's edition of Koch’s Musikalisches Lexikon, but works definable in retrospect as song cycles existed long before then.
A song cycle is similar to a song collection, and the two can be difficult to distinguish. Some type of coherence, however, is regarded as a necessary attribute of song cycles. It may derive from the text (a single poet; a story line; a central theme or topic such as love or nature; a unifying mood; poetic form or genre, as in a sonnet or ballad cycle) or from musical procedures (tonal schemes; recurring motifs, passages or entire songs; formal structures). These unifying features may appear singly or in combination. Because of these many variations, the song cycle "resists definition". The nature and quality of the coherence within a song cycle must therefore be examined "in individual cases".
Song cycles in German Lieder
Although most European countries began developing the art song genre by the beginning of the 19th century, the rise of Lieder in "Austria and Germany have outweighed all others in terms of influence." German language song composition at the end of 18th century shifted from accessible, Strophic form, more traditional folk songs to 19th century settings of more sophisticated poetry for a more educated middle class, "who were gradually supplanting the aristocracy as the main patrons of the arts". Since these songs were relatively small-scale works, like the lyric poetry used for their musical settings, they were often published in collections, and consequently borrowed various poetic terms to mark their groupings: Reihe (series), Kranz (ring), Zyklus (cycle) or Kreis (circle). In the first few decades of the 1800s, the collections of poetry and the subsequent song settings took on more underlying coherence and dramatic plot, giving rise to the song cycle. This coherence allowed the song genre to be elevated to a "higher form", serious enough to be compared with symphonies and cycles of lyric piano pieces.
Two of the earliest examples of the song cycle were composed in 1816: Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte (Op. 98), and Die Temperamente beim Verluste der Geliebten (J. 200-3, \Op. 46) by Carl Maria von Weber.
The genre was firmly established by the cycles of Schubert: his Die schöne Müllerin (1823) and Winterreise (1827), settings of 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 specialty, 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.
Song cycles in France
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. Paroles tissées and Chantefleurs et Chantefables by Lutosławski as well as Correspondances and Le temps l'horloge by Dutilleux should also be mentioned.
English and American song cycles
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. In the early twentieth century, Vaughan Williams composed his famous song cycle, the Songs of Travel. 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, Seven 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.
American examples include Barber's Hermit Songs (1953) and Despite and Still, and Songfest by Bernstein, Hammarskjöld Portrait (1974), Les Olympiques (1976), Tribute to a Hero (1981), "Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens" (1989), 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).
Song cycles in other countries
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 Passed.
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.
- Susan Youens, Grove online
- One example is the set of Schubert songs from The Lady of the Lake. See the article on Schubert's "Ave Maria".
- Called dyad-cycles, according to Youens.
- Daverio, Chapter 9, "The Song Cycle: Journeys Through a Romantic Landscape", German Lieder in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Rufus Hallmark, p. 366
- Tunbridge, p. 2
- Tunbridge, pp. 2-3
- Tunbridge, p. 3
- Tunbridge, pp. 3-4
- Tunbridge, p. 4
- "Troika: Russia's westerly poetry in three orchestral song cycles", Rideau Rouge Records, ASIN: B005USB24A, 2011, liner notes, p. 4
- Bingham, Ruth O., "The Early Nineteenth-Century Song Cycle", in The Cambridge Companion to the Lied, ed. James Parsons (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 101–119.
- Hallmark, Rufus, ed. (2010). German Lieder in the Nineteenth Century. Routledge Studies in Musical Genres (paperback ed.). New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-99038-6.
- Tunbridge, Laura (2010), Cambridge Introductions of Music: The Song Cycle, Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-72107-3
- Youens, Susan. "Song Cycle". In Macy, Laura. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. (subscription required)