Song cycle

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A song cycle is a group of songs designed to be performed in sequence as a single entity. Usually all of the songs are by the same composer and use words from the same poet. A song cycle is unified by reference to a particular theme or by telling a story.

The term originated to describe cycles of songs (often called lieder) in classical music, and has been extended to apply to popular music.

Song cycles in classical music

The first example of a song cycle is generally thought to be Ludwig van Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte (1816). The genre was firmly established by the cycles of Franz 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) is also frequently performed as a cycle, though it was not intended as such by Schubert - the songs were instead collected together by his publisher and his brother following the composer's death.

Robert Schumann also wrote song cycles, the best known being the Dichterliebe (1840) and Frauenliebe und -leben (1840). He also wrote two collections entitled Liederkreis (both 1840), the German word for a song cycle. Later examples include Hector Berlioz' Nuits d'été, Modest Mussorgsky's Sunless, The Nursery and Songs and Dances of Death, Gustav Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Kindertotenlieder and Das Lied von der Erde, and Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire.

Song cycles in popular music

Song cycles have also been written by rock musicians. Many pop albums have included a short series of songs that tell a story, thus resembling a rock opera. Two early examples are The Who's "A Quick One While He's Away" (from A Quick One, which may have influenced Pete Townshend's rock opera Tommy), and James Pankow's "Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon" (from Chicago's album Chicago II).

Popular music song cycles that focus on a particular theme rather than a narrative theme have been produced by many artists, usually as concept albums. The definitive album of such is Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (1979), which deals bluntly with insanity and life's hardships. Their follow-up albums Wish You Were Here, Animals, and The Wall, can also all be considered cyclic. Cyclic albums by other artists include Marvin Gaye's 1971 What's Going On, and Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989), both of which address contemporary social and political issues. In another vein, Radiohead's seminal OK Computer starts with the words of a jubilant survivor of a car accident, and ends with a similar car crash.

Song cycle is also the title of the debut album by Van Dyke Parks.

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