Sunday, August 1, 2010
Music and Memory, Part 11: Song of Love
My oral exams dictated that I present before a panel of professors on a piece that I had sung in the second of the three recitals required by my program, and I chose Schumann's famous song cycle Frauenliebe und -Leben -- A Woman's Love and Life (I have the recording of that recital, and consider it to be one of my most convincing performances). Frauenliebe is based on poetry by Adalbert von Chamisso, whose publication of the poems in book form in 1830 caused a small sensation; young women in particular inundated the poet with correspondence, amazed that a man had apparently been able to unlock the language of a woman's heart and express it so faithfully. The poems Schumann chose for the cycle tell the story of a young woman who falls in love, marries, has a child, and suffers the death of her husband, and his song cycle is truly cyclical, a sort of closed circle like a wedding ring, ending with the same music -- the theme "Seit ich ihn gesehen" -- with which it begins. One of the many remarkable things about Frauenliebe is that alone among the great German Romantic song cycles of the nineteenth century, it is sung from the point of view of a woman. While the famous "male" cycles -- for instance, Schubert's Winterreise, Schumann's Liederkreis, and Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen -- all address the issue of striking out into the world, and trying -- and failing -- to negotiate one's way in it, Frauenliebe takes place in inner space, in the interior of both the home and the heart.
When I was a young singer on various singer listservs, there was a good deal of discussion about Frauenliebe. Some principled sopranos and mezzos (the piece has a low tessitura and, though it can be sung by sopranos, it's more commonly done by mezzos) declared that they would never, ever sing it. They deemed it rather appallingly sexist: the woman's first statement is "Since I first laid eyes on him, I seem to be blind"; when the unnamed beloved proposes to her (offstage, as it were), she cannot believe that princely he has chosen lowly her; she sings an ode to her engagement ring, explaining that it has given her a purpose and saved her from a life that would otherwise have been an endless expanse of barren waste. (Some of these same thoughtful singers also declared Aaron Copland's arrangement of the old American song "I Bought Me a Cat" off-limits, for its last verse, "I bought me a wife, my wife pleased me/I fed my wife under yonder tree," etc. )
When I was preparing my arguments for my final doctoral exams, I did a great deal of research on Frauenliebe, on Schumann, and on his wife Clara (above), the great pianist who was also a composer in her own right. I found out some interesting things: for instance, pace the principled women on the singer listservs who eschewed the piece, it was also sung by men in the nineteenth century, notably by the prominent German baritone Julius Stockhausen. And I came upon a concert program that Clara Schumann had performed with some colleagues after Robert's death, in which she split up the cycle, interspersing its eight songs with other works by her husband. In my orals, I also addresed what I believed was an undercurrent of Christian mysticism in the piece, and indeed, some commentators have noted both Marian and quietistic themes in the cycle. I was nine months pregnant at the time, and was busting out of a clingy gray maternity dress that I had never worn before, the kind that looks cute on the internet, but turns out to be somewhat bizarrely fetishistic when you put it on, but by then you're out the door and it's too late, because you have a date with destiny.
All of this went through my mind in the solitude of the practice room yesterday. I was delighted to be there, in the bowels of the place where I had spent some of my happiest years, and where I gained one of the deepest feelings of connection -- to my craft and to my life -- that I had ever received. Nonetheless, it was a bit jarring to be practicing virtuosic music in the place where I had begun to embrace music that was its aesthetic and even its ethical opposite.
Coincidentally, I recently watched the 1947 film "Song of Love," which stars Katharine Hepburn as Clara Schumann and Paul Henreid as Robert; Robert Walker also appears as the sensitive young Johannes Brahms, secretly in love with the efficient, angelic Clara. The film fudges the details about the complicated relationships between Robert and Clara, between the Schumanns and Brahms, and between the Schumanns and Liszt, among other things. However, one of its main themes is the contrast of virtuosity -- in the movie, construed as soulless, empty, morally suspect -- with the deliberate practice of anti-virtuosity espoused by the Schumanns. There is a wonderful scene in which Clara sets forth her manifesto of pure music before the virtuoso pianist (and relentless womanizer) Franz Liszt while playing her husband's song "Widmung" (Dedication) -- right after Liszt has performed his own bravura variations upon it. The young man who says, "Such technique, Mr. Liszt; I don't know what to say," is Brahms, also a great pianist -- who in real life fell asleep the first time he heard Liszt play. It is interesting that Liszt calls Clara "the reigning saint of music," because the mid-century cult of anti-virtuosity, of simplicity in music, was, like much in the Romantic movement, indeed an attempt to find truth, purity, and the essence of the spiritual in art.
Hepburn's piano playing was dubbed by Artur Rubinstein, uncredited. Here is Rubinstein/Hepburn playing Schumann's beautiful "Träumerei," a piece which both begins and ends the film, as Schumann's "Seit ich ihn gesehen" both begins and ends Frauenliebe und -Leben. It could serve as the theme song of Romantic anti-virtuosity; "Träumerei" is the most famous piece from Schumanns Kinderszenen -- Scenes from Childhood -- and is a fitting anthem for the ethos of simplicity and purity and the Romantic striving after what is essential and true, but which will always elude us on this earth.
Here is the late, lamented Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing "Seit ich ihn gesehen," no. 1 from Frauenliebe. It is a marvelous performance, and really captures the ethos of Romantic simplicity. The text and translation can be found here.