A song cycle (in classical music) is a set of songs written by the same composer that, though individually complete, are part of the same narrative, or of related emotion, thought or expression, and can be performed together as an entity. It is the vocal equivalent of the suite.
Whilst a form of the song cycle can be said to have existed in the first half of the 17th century, it is generally recognised that Beethoven’s “To the Distant Beloved” (“An die ferne Geliebte”) (1816) is the first modern song cycle. Franz Schubert’s three great cycles; “Die schone Müllerin” (1823), “Winterreise” (1827) and “Schwanengesang” (published after his death in 1828); and Robert Schumann’s “Fraunliebe und Leben” (1843) and “Dichterliebe” (1844) are generally considered the high point of the art of song in the early romantic era.
The form has continued to this day through the diametrically opposed styles and philosophies of Brahms and Hugo Wolf later in the 19th century; and works by Richard Strauss and the English masters of the first half of the 20th century; to cycles by the Americans Aaron Copland (“Old American Songs” – two sets, and “8 Poems of Emily Dickenson”), and Ned Rorem later in the century..
Most cycles have been written for voice and piano; the greater ones are true partnerships with the accompanist being at least as important as the singer. There are examples though of all manner of accompanying instruments and ensembles – flute, violin, oboe, piano quintet and others. On either side of the turn of the 20th century, the Bohemian born Gustav Mahler wrote a series of cycles for voice and orchestra that are the equal of his symphonies in their depth of feeling. “Songs of a Wayfarer”, “Youth’s Magic Horn” (with two singers), “Songs for the Death of Children” and the symphonic “Song of the Earth” are unique in their range and intensity. It takes a fine singer to do any of them justice.
Individual songs can stand alone, (the famous Schubert’s “Serenade”, for example, is a part of “Schwannengesange”; and composers have even been known to publish a “teaser” before releasing the complete set) many cycles, especially shorter ones, are usually performed together. Richard Strauss’ “Four Last Songs”, Brahms “Four Serious Songs” are examples where it is rare for the songs to be performed or recorded out of their context within the set.
“Oxford Companion to Music”
“The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music”