Arias are the pieces for solo voice with instrumental accompaniment that are found in operas, oratorios, and cantatas. They’re songs, in a sense, but they tend to be more musically elaborate and vocally demanding than the kinds of pieces we usually call songs.
The original and still primary meaning of the Italian word aria is “air,” as in the air we breathe. But the musical term evolved along a new path, and although the history is complicated, by the 1400's aria had also come to mean “a musical setting of poetry.” The first arias, in fact, were just simple tunes into which musicians plugged any poems that had the right rhythms. By the 1500's the English and French had borrowed the term, but the English ayre and the French air both then developed along different, and generally less complex lines than the Italian aria. More on aria tomorrow.
I’m Miles Hoffman, and this has been A Minute with Miles – a production of South Carolina Public Radio, made possible by the J.M. Smith Corporation.