Frauenliebe und Leben

I am giving a recital of this celebrated cycle on the 11th Sept in the Odeion Concert Hall in Bloemfontein, and thought I would share the programme note I wrote for it here. We are discussing the articles I refer to below in a postgraduate research seminar group this Friday.

Robert Schumann se befaamde siklus Frauenliebe und Leben is in 1840 gekomponeer. Hierdie uiters produktiewe jaar (soms sy “Liederjaar” genoem) waaruit die meeste van sy groot en bekende siklusse insluitende ook Dichterliebe dateer, was die jaar dat hy en Clara Wieck uiteindelik met mekaar kon trou, ná ’n uitgerekte hofsaak teen haar pa.

Die teks van Frauenliebe und Leben is ’n stel gedigte deur Adelbert von Chamisso wat in 1830 gepubliseer is. Hierdie gedigte probeer die lewensloop en veral die innerlike of verbeeldingslewe van ’n vrou vasvang, maar die stereotipe wat hierdie tekste uitbeeld van ’n vrou wat haar identiteit en lewensin vind in haar rol as onderdanige eggenoot en moeder, het selfs so vroeg as die 1870s kritiek uitgelok (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Robert Schumann, Wort und Musik: Das Vokalwerk (Stuttgart, 1981), 87).

’n Belangrike feministiese aanslag op die teks én musiek het in 1992 uit die pen van Ruth Solie verskyn (Whose life? The gendered self in Schumann’s Frauenliebe songs in Scher (red.) Music and text: critical inquiries). Sy voel veral ongemaklik daarmee dat Chamisso en Schumann, as mans, die onderwerping aan die man en haar selfopgawe in moederskap as die vrou se hoogste ekstase voorstel, in die teks en (besonder effektief) in die musiek. Sy verstaan dus die sg. “cultural work” wat deur die siklus verrig word as ’n aktiewe bevordering van die onregverdige stereotipe, eerder as ’n onskuldige uitbeelding van die destydse sosiale werklikheid.

Daar het egter in die afgelope dekade ’n nuwe wending in musikologiese beskouings van die siklus ingetree, waarin skrywers registreer dat sangers, ten spyte van die ongemaklike en vir sommige aanstootlike stereotipe, steeds genoeg estetiese waarde uit die siklus put om dit herhaaldelik uit te voer:

To judge by the remarkable number of new recordings over the last decades, however, singers’ interest in the songs has not diminished with the feminist critique – even if this viewpoint has dominated the accompanying program notes. Performers have evidently found it possible to draw from these songs something that continues to appeal to them and to put it forth persuasively (Muxfeldt, K. 2001. Frauenliebe Now and Then, in 19th-century music 25:1, 28-29).

In die artikel wat ek hierbo aanhaal, onderneem Muxfeldt dus ‘n tipe “rehabilitasie” van die siklus deur verby die geslagstereotipe na die res van die estetiese inhoud van die kunswerk te kyk. Een van die antwoorde wat sy aanbied, is ook die een wat dit vir die huidige uitvoerder moontlik gemaak het om die siklus op ‘n outentieke wyse te interpreteer, naamlik die klem op die tipies Romantiese verbeeldingsin en emosionele fynbesnaardheid wat die hoofkarakter in die siklus het:

Frauenliebe und Leben is a paradox. Even as its more concrete subject matter has died out in the world, the intensity of Schumann’s engagement with the figure of this woman remains deeply affecting. To my mind, it is precisely the uninhibited imagination of Schumann’s act of empathy, his remarkable effort to portray his character’s process of mind, which stands to account for the work’s continued effectiveness in the present – against all shifting social odds (Muxfeldt, K. 2001. Frauenliebe Now and Then, in 19th-century music 25:1, 48).

(Matildie Thom Wium)

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One response to “Frauenliebe und Leben

  1. Schumann’s Song Cycle Frauenliebe.

    My initial reaction to the poetry was probably the same as most other educated women living in today’s Western society. It appears to be patronising to the point of being offensive. In reading the articles that Matildie mentioned, I was therefore fascinated to read that the cycle can be understood differently.

    Ruth Solie raises the question of whether women in the nineteenth century really saw themselves as subservient to a man. One would like to think, like Ruth, that they didn’t, but my own opinion is that, with a few notable exceptions, it’s exactly what they thought. Ruth calls this “naive historical relativism”, but I think that she is imposing her own modernist feelings. Even someone as unorthodox as Clara Schumann herself, needed the support of Robert to defy her father. Even in this, Clara was a notable exception. She cannot be regarded as a “typical” (whatever that means) woman of the times.

    The education of women, if they were educated at all, was geared to believing that they were better off letting the men in their lives make the important decisions. Fanny Mendelssohn is a sad example. Certainly in the upper and middle classes, girls were protected from the harsh realities of the real world and encouraged to read soppy books, draw pictures, play a musical instrument and do some charitable work. These were the “accomplishments” that were admired. If they could also write a decent letter and speak a foreign language, then they were a real catch. They were horribly ignorant of sexual matters whereas men were often “educated” by personal experience in one of the many brothels of the day, sometimes getting socially unacceptable diseases as a result – like Schumann himself.

    Ruth also raises the question of whether the poetry might be seen as an idealistic portrayal of how the men of the day would like women to behave and feel rather than how they actually felt. It could be seen as a man’s wish list. To think that women did not subscribe to the same idealised image of themselves is to underestimate the power of the (still) male-centric world. In fact, we haven’t really come all that far ourselves. Just look at the idealised portrayal of women in the media of today. The perfect woman is beautiful, slim, toned, tanned, intelligent, a great cook, a wonderful mother, etc etc (yawn yawn yawn). How many women aspire to be like that? All of us? The power of men’s idealised picture of women and the effect that it has on us cannot be underestimated, even when we imagine ourselves to be emancipated. To think that the nineteenth century woman was not under the influence of the (then) idealised picture of womanhood would be naive.

    I would like to propose an alternative interpretation of the poetry. I think that it is more likely to be a genuine, and sympathetic, attempt to portray the feelings of a woman, as understood by a man. The fact that the “voice” of the poetry is that of a woman does not mean that her words would be misinterpreted by the listener as representing her own feelings. Everyone knew who the poet was. The mere fact that a poet was trying to understand and portray the innermost feelings of a woman was quite remarkable and actually very sensitive. Instead of criticising Chamisso, I think we should be recognising that he was trying to elevate, not subjugate, women, by giving them a voice. Any voice is better than no voice. The fact that he was barking up the wrong tree, from our modern point of view, is perhaps irrelevant. I would also like to point out that women were rarely credited with having deep emotions. Going as far back as the troubadours and later on in the Italian madrigals, women are invariably portrayed as being cruel in love, unable to plumb the depths of emotion, unable to experience the joy and pain of love. Chamisso’s poetry at least credits women with depth of feeling, a depth that is lent poignancy by Clara’s own undoubted depth of feeling for Robert. Seen from this angle, the poetry puts women on the same level as men, perhaps even going so far as to suggest that women have more intense feelings and that men are unworthy of them because their feelings are shallower.

    This interpretation supports Chamisso’s own views on the various artificial levels of society that were prevalent. He was outspoken against racism, a passionate supporter of the underdog and a member of Madame de Stael’s coterie. It is worth noting that Madame de Stael, who has often been regarded as the first “Modern Woman” because she supported women’s rights long before it became a popular political movement, was an outspoken critic of Napoleon (he tried to silence her, couldn’t, and then exiled her for her views). She supported the (then) completely novel idea that all humans had a right to dignity, she worked hard to abolish the slave trade, supported religious tolerance and published several brilliant articles and books. From the view point of the Frauenliebe cycle, it is interesting to note that she was an avid supporter of, and indeed implementer of, the view held by Rousseau that passionate love is natural to human beings and to yield oneself to love will not result in abandoning virtue. Her numerous affairs and children born out of wedlock were the proof that she practiced what she preached. The fact that Chamisso supported de Stael throws a different light on the poetry of the Frauenliebe und Leben cycle.

    The controversy about the text is perhaps not so much what was actually in Chamisso’s poetry, but in the baggage that we carry with us today. Future generations may be able to see the poetry with a less jaundiced eye, in the same way that we can now read the poetry of the Italian madrigals without cringing. Despite our protestations to the contrary, we are still fighting against the nineteenth century perception of women. It’s still far too close – and it’s tempting to waste time trashing the poetry instead of appreciating its sensitivity and seeing how clever Schumann’s musical interpretation was.

    Lindy Vinke

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