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Thoughts on a Twenty-First Century Frauenliebe

Our webmaster, Kira, reflects on her performance of Frauenliebe und leben.


I'm back, with what feels like my first properly musical post.

A huge fixation of mine for the most part of 2023 and beyond has been the Robert Schumann song cycle, Frauenliebe und Leben (1840). Arguably his most cohesive cycle, it tells the story of the Frau, and it's just about as stereotypical as it you'd expect it to be. She's 'blinded' by the sight of her lover, she is shocked that he is interested in her 'lowly' self, he asks for her hand, they get married, she has a baby, and then in a wild turn of events, he dies, causing the Frau her 'first pain'. Composed by Robert in the run-up to his marriage to Clara, I guess we could say it reflect's some of the hopes and dreams of their prospective union. Its genesis, reception, and performances provide a bouncy springboard for discussions about nineteenth-century gender roles, constructions of gender in art song and song cycles, and so much more.

You might recall a mention of Frauenliebe in a previous blog post. Well, one only needs to look at my 2023 Spotify wrapped to know I'm mildly obsessed. But why? Well, I'm still asking myself that question.

Last term, I had the opportunity to perform a few songs from the cycle (in what can be argued as a mildly problematic setting), but well over a month later, I'm still trying to process what it means to perform such a work today. One of the first questions we asked ourselves in rehearsal is 'Why is this cycle still being performed?' and the simple answer would be, 'it's still relatable in some ways'. Perhaps the relatability of some of the texts still draws us in, allowing us to connect with the music, despite knowing that we have (hopefully) evolved greatly from the stereotypical nineteenth-century woman.

So naturally, the second question was 'What precisely is it, that's so offensive about the cycle?' to which I responded, 'the whole thing', because for me, there isn't one singular moment that I can pinpoint as more problematic or offensive than another. Yes, I love the music but the whole concept behind it is... odd. A male poet (Albert von Chamisso) and a male composer (Robert Schumann), writing a song cycle about a woman's life, featuring such feminine experiences which both would not have experienced first-hand. That doesn't quite sit right with me. Of course, there's nothing to say that women weren't consulted during the creative process, but when we trace the history of these songs through to the first public performance, it has generally been dominated by men, with its first public performance in 1849 given by Julius Stockhausen, and Clara at the piano. Despite these discussions, I will always return to the idea of relatability in this cycle, regardless of gender or age, there are a wealth of feelings explored, therefore making it relevant and relatable even until today.

A lot of my time over the past week or so has been spent consulting literature which discusses Frauenliebe, not just for my own interest, but for "degree related reasons" (I hope, since I wrote a page and a half solely on this cycle in one of my collections...!). There are some fantastic points to be made, especially with regards to the musical content; as with much of his Lieder, and specifically the cycles of Liederjahr, Robert's musical settings of these poems sit in a new realm of poetry themselves. I wholeheartedly agree, especially when you realise how quickly he penned some of these cycles (although I think some may disagree with me when discussing Dichterliebe!). But some of my favourite things I've read often discuss the programming of this work- yes, it's relatable, but how on EARTH do we allow it to be relevant, for it to resonate with both audiences and performers? Surely there's little point in performing something that feels so firmly rooted in the problematic values of nineteenth-century ideals?

Well, I think there are two things to consider here. One is how we perform it, our musical decisions, and of course, the second is how we programme it. What goes into a recital with Frauenliebe? Do we choose songs that perpetuate the outdated stereotypes, or, do we find pieces of music that empower women, and explore feminine experience through an alternative light?

Back in March, only one of these two concepts was discussed in rehearsals. I'd argue that our lack of discussion regarding the setting in which we'd perform these songs were the root cause of the 'problematic element' regarding this cycle. We definitely spent sufficient time working on where we stress the text, the way in which we shape the phrases in order to give us the power, as the woman, instead of just making her the 'accessory'. Kudos has to be given to Robert for this though- if it weren't for the space he allows the Frau to occupy, it would be much more difficult to rework and personalise the music for ourselves. Now, what do I mean by this? An example that stuck with me would be the opening section of the sixth song, 'Süßer Freund'. As the turning point of the cycle, I would argue that this song requires much attention for its performers.

To add a musical perspective to this, we've got this poignant shift from flat key signatures to the brightness of sharps. The warmth and comfort of B-flat major in 'Helft mir, ihr Schwestern' is quickly left behind for the sudden shift to G major. See what I was saying about Robert's own poetry through this cycle? He's telling us through the music that this is the moment where things change for the Frau, and we as performers must adapt to convey that.

I believe that this is where she takes control. This is the start of her 'main character moment', although it may have taken me a little while to acknowledge this. I'd been encouraged in my singing lessons to sing the opening recitative section 'submissively'. Naturally, this interpretation was vetoed instantly in our very first rehearsal when I was reminded that it is in fact the Frau who takes on the dominant role within these intimate moments, with the Herr being the submissive one. What a moment this is! Nineteenth-century gender roles reversed? The woman as the subject and the man as the object? Shocking! Paying attention to the text and the music through these means allows us to give the Frau more agency, which, I believe has been so wrongfully taken away from her, not just through our academic critiques of this music, but also through our performative interpretations.

So this brings me onto my second idea- the way in which we programme this cycle. And, time for some literature (yay!). A fantastic starting point regarding this concept would be Carolyn Sampson's insanely well-written Guardian article, where she discusses her album with Joseph Middleton, Album für die Frau (yes, the one from my Spotify wrapped). The concept behind this album is a clever one- Frauenliebe, but with the addition of other Lieder by Robert and Clara, and some of Robert's piano works, all centered around the Frau's story, subsequently splitting up the cycle and making the whole album a reconstruction of the cycle itself. In doing so, not only is the result one of the most beautiful emotional rollercoasters I've engaged with thus far, but it is also a means of providing the Frau with more scope, adding nuances to the storyline, and restoring the power that she deserves.

Another reason why this album is such a gem is because it brings some more unheard of pieces of Clara's Lieder. Whilst Clara's output of songs is much less than that of Robert's, I'd argue that many of them are some of the most thoughtful and poignant pieces of Lieder composed in the nineteenth-century. As well as showcasing some of Clara's well-known songs such as 'Liebst du um Schönheit' from her and Robert's Liebesfrühling, Sampson and Middleton breathe new life into songs from the more 'lost' opus 23, the Rollett Lieder- the closest thing we have to a Clara song cycle. So, not only have we had the chance to explore and expand on the themes from Frauenliebe, but we've also been given the invaluable opportunity to hear songs that have slipped through the net.

I'm aware that this concept of deconstructing a song cycle doesn't sit right with some people, and I also initially had conflicting feelings about this. But the truth is, the concept of performing a cycle in its complete form is a relatively new one. Clara did perform Frauenliebe, but stopped after the fifth song (there is a lot to be said behind this decision), but there were often times where she'd just take one of the songs from a cycle. For example, her performance on 1st December 1859 in the Leipzig Gewandhaus of Schubert's 'Gretchen am Spinnrade', which was followed by 'Er, der Herrlichste von allen', Frauenliebe's second song. Firstly, what a contrast! But secondly, why are we struggling to accept this concept if these were the conventions of Lied performance in the nineteenth-century? Surely albums that explore these ideas can give us a better insight into the way in which we have neglected Lied performance practice and harness these ideas in performance today? Does this mean the way in which much of Lieder is performed today can be classified as being 'unfaithful to a work'? If we try to alter the meaning of the work in order to make it more relevant to today's audiences, are we again, being 'unfaithful'? I really really REALLY don't want to have to mention Lydia Goehr in a blog post, but so many of these ideas (not just about performance practice) link closely to ideas about Werktreue. I think I'll save that for a foundations essay though!

Returning to the point of that rabbit-hole-ramble, there are academic opinions on this. (I guess you could say that this is the 'further reading' section of the reading list!). Loges has written a fantastic article on these ideas entitled 'Fragmenting Frauenliebe und -leben' from The Lied at the Crossroads of Performance and Musicology, which provides such a useful insight into these concepts. I've touched on. Honestly, that whole collection of essays is chef's kiss, and feeds us tasteful food for thought regarding musicology and Lied performance, and their intersection. Solie's 'Whose life? The gendered self in Schumann's Frauenliebe songs' is a great starting point, and so is Muxfledt's 'Frauenliebe und Leben Now and Then' , and there is a wealth of scholarship available about this cycle out there (including a whole book), if you dare to dig!

So, where have I gone/where am I going with all of this? I think this post requires some bullet points otherwise it may as well be a happy marriage between a Foundations and Schumanns essay!

  • Personally, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with performing Frauenliebe today.

  • If we were to 'cancel' all works that are 'problematic' as such, how then do we learn about the way in which societal ideologies have changed? And more importantly, would we then be rewriting musical history which could result in us becoming more ignorant?

  • Should we wish to perform works that potentially touch on more uncomfortable/problematic concepts, we should seek to endeavour that we do so in a safer space, ensuring that the work is presented through a means which lets it speak its intended ideology with sufficient context.

  • There is SO much more I could say on these ideas, on the literary, compositional, and performative responses which have arisen as a a result of Frauenliebe, but I think I will (and probably should) leave it here for today.

So much of what I've read and written about has left me with more questions than answers- usually the case, and I'd say it's a healthy thing! But the truth is, this is just one opinion on this issue. I'm sure there are many that would disagree and have strong arguments to support their outlook. However, being able to think about what exactly it is that we are doing when engaging with works like Frauenliebe is vital. Not only does it make us stop and think twice about hopping on the 'cancel the work/canon/composer' bandwagon, but it allows us to let the music speak for itself, and more importantly, speak the message that we intend it to convey.

Congratulations for making it to the bottom of this rather heavy brain dump!

See you soon,

leeky ♬




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