What is a Song Cycle?

Song cycles must have interrelated musical elements. The song cycle was first created in the Romantic period amongst composers such as Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert. The music of a song cycle connects to a central idea in various ways. Composers must unite song cycles based on central musical themes, the progression of keys, motives or concepts. How the composers presents the song cycle relies largely on his personal preference for music. A properly composed song cycle consists of anywhere from 3 to 9 songs connected in some musical way.


Song cycles came to being towards the end of the Classical period and rose to their highest point in the Romantic period. Composers such as Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Mahler all created famous song cycles that dealt with themes of nature and emotional issues. Mahler's "Songs on the Death of Children" dealt with themes of children and their journey into adulthood. He insisted to his wife Alma that the material had nothing to do with the actual death of children and that it was a metaphor for growing up.


Uniting a series of songs based on a theme helps to connect the material in a song cycle. Often, in the Romantic period composers used themes about nature, relationships and perceptions of the environment around them to create song cycles based on themes. For example, the famous Romantic period composer Robert Schumann wrote song cycles which translates to "A Woman's Love and Life" or "Frauenliebe und Leben" in the original German. This song deals with a woman and the relationship to love and how it affects her life.


The key signature may be connected in a song cycle as well as the theme. For instance, if the first song appears in C major, the second song might appear in G major since G serves as the dominant of C major. In music, we call the fifth scale degree of a major scale the dominant. In this case, if you count up five notes from C, you get the letter G. Composers will connect song cycles in various ways to create a connection that logically stems from the previous song.


Motives provide a simple way to connect musical ideas that otherwise would not be related. Think of a motive as the smallest recognizable musical element in a piece. For instance, in Beethoven's fifth symphony, the opening four-note figure qualifies as a motive with its repeating three short and one long note structure. Motives can be more complicated, but generally, they consist of very simply elements that connect different songs back to the original song in the cycle.


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