Music Solo Secular Vocal Music
David Tunley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 January 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0071


Singing being the most natural and spontaneous form of music making, its universal cultivation knows no bounds in time or place. However, for practical purposes, the following references are mainly concerned with European-style solo secular vocal music from medieval times to the present day. Yet even within that time frame and geography it is not easy to define solo secular vocal music, often known as “art song,” a slightly broader term, as that repertory sometimes includes songs with a religious or spiritual text. The difficulty in finding a watertight definition of solo secular vocal music is that there is often an overlap with other forms and types. Folk songs, for example, have often been incorporated into classical repertory, but folk song is an enormous area in its own right and needs its own bibliographical resources. A similar overlap occurs with indigenous songs from various cultures, as do popular songs. Into the latter category are those by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and others in the early years of the 20th century. However, most of the songs of these brilliant composers—even those whose compositions became classics of their kind—were originally written for musicals and as such are better treated as music for theater or cabaret rather than in the present category. Thus, with some exceptions, the sources listed below relate to solo songs not primarily composed for liturgical, religious, or theatrical purposes.

Reference Works

The following citations begin with those general studies of song which also have sections dealing with solo secular vocal music. Following these are references dealing with songs from particular countries: Britain, the United States, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Russia, and Poland, each commencing with general studies of those repertories, followed by more specialized ones (see Guides to Literature). The references are listed in the chronological order of each repertory. Information about songs from countries other than those listed above, may sometimes be found in music databases such as Répertoire international de la literature musicale, which offers abstracts in English of books and articles in their original languages. Encyclopedia-type references are good starting points, as they usually survey the broad scene, as in Chew, et al. in Grove Music Online, while Jost 1996 is more lieder-oriented. Two other broad studies are Schmitz 1955 and Stevens 1960. The issue of combining words with music is taken up by Dunsby 2004, while Manning 1996 discusses performance matters in contemporary solo song.

  • Chew, Geoffrey, Thomas B. Payne, Thomas J. Mathiesen, and David Fallows. “Song.” Grove Music Online.

    This fine entry provides an excellent background to the study of solo song, leading from ancient times to the present. It commences with some reflections on the nature of song and the various theories that emerged during its long history. Available by subscription only.

  • Dunsby, Jonathan. Making Words Sing: Nineteenth-and Twentieth-Century Song. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511481703

    A highly original approach to understanding the combination of words and music, with wide-ranging references to the concept of “vocality,” to psychology, Schenkerian analysis, and many other ideas, resulting in a book of profound scholarship and insights.

  • Jost, Peter. “Lied.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Vol. 5. Edited by Friedrich Blume and Ludwig Finscher, 1259–1328. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 1996.

    While this entry is essentially about German lied with a brief sidelong glance at solo song in other countries, it takes in developments from the Middle Ages to the present with an extensive bibliography.

  • Manning, Jane. New Vocal Repertory—an Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

    This is not a musicological study or a complete catalogue of new vocal repertory but a valuable guide for performers new to the repertory or who seek to know more about it. Most of the seventy-five songs are not widely known. The songs are classified in order of technical difficulty, further divided into musical difficulty. Each song is preceded by a commentary.

  • Répertoire Internationale de Littérature Musicale.

    Since 1966 this project has attempted to record details of all scholarly writings about music (mainly in books and journal articles) with abstracts in English. Non-English-language writings normally have their abstracts translated into English. RILM is dependent on authors providing details of their publications as they appear.

  • Schmitz, Eugen. Geschichte der weltlichen Solokantate. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1955.

    A second and revised edition of an important work that first appeared in 1914, this book is devoted to Italian, French, German, and English solo baroque cantatas. Although much research has subsequently overtaken it, the book remains one of the few that shows the wide range of the genre.

  • Stevens, Denis, ed. A History of Song. London: Hutchinson, 1960.

    The enormous range of this book—from medieval times to mid-20th century—results in very generalized accounts of the development of song in various countries and is well suited to undergraduates. It contains lists of all works and composers cited in the text but lacks a bibliography directing readers to more detailed studies.

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