While reading the recital's programme that is opening the Schubertiada at Vilabertran the day after tomorrow, I realized that we haven't spoken yet on Liederabend about one of the most important cycles by Schumann, Frauenliebe und -leben (A Woman's Love and Life), probably his most controversial cycle, and not because of the music. After writing for a while, I also realized that the post became too long; but instead of shortening it, which is what I usually do, this time I decided (it's summer, you know) to split the post into two, this week’s and next’s.
Frauenliebe und -leben shows us a woman throughout her life, from the moment she falls in love with the man who eventually becomes his husband until she becomes a widow. In some poems, we get to know a submissive and self-sacrificing woman, and this led to a certain controversy during the 1970s (it didn't make headlines though, as you can imagine), during the peak of the feminist movement. When I knew about this dispute I was surprised: of course, we are not talking about a modern girl, but she's like so many other female roles in Romantic operas, for instance. I read and checked the experts’ opinions here and there; in recent years the general opinion is that we're talking neither about a flat character nor a sexist writer that projects onto his poems his submissive wife ideal (although we can't lose sight of those 200 years that separate him from us). On the contrary, Chamisso's approach is modern (I insist, in context), and the character progresses with time. In addition, we shouldn't forget about Schumann, his music has something to say in this story.
Let’s start talking about the poet, Adalbert von Chamisso. He was born in France in 1781 and the Count Louis Marie de Chamissot’s son; a few years later, the family went into exile in Berlin, they weren't good times for nobility in France. Despite what it may seem knowing this context, Chamisso wasn't a typical representative of the Ancien Régime but a progressive man with modern ideas. His name might sound familiar to you, Chamisso is the author of "Peter Schlemihl's Miraculous Story" a fantasy story about a man that sells his shadow.
Going back to our poems cycle, A Woman's Love and Life, the first thing that draws our attention is precisely that the main character is a woman. If we remember the song cycles that we have talked about on Liederabend, we heard the poets’ voices, wanderers and millers, but this is the first time that a woman talks to us. I haven't checked it, but I would say that Gretchen (a character in a play) is the only female voice that we've heard during the last two and a half years.
In this cycle, we know a woman who falls in love and feels unworthy of the man she loves. Perhaps because she's very young, perhaps because she belongs to a lower class, perhaps, simply, because she feels too confused to feel confident. The man notices her, they got married, and we readers can see how she grows up and goes from protected to protector; a woman from the first third of the 19th century dares to pity men because they can't experience motherhood. When the husband dies she reproaches him, and in the last poem, the 9th, the woman addresses her granddaughter, who is about to get married. She has lived with serenity, alone with her baby, and now, she identifies with another bride and is recalling her life.
We will continue next week; now we are listening to the first song of the cycle, Seit ich ihn gesehen (Since first seeing him). The girl, still young enough to play with her sisters, has seen the man and since then, she can't think of anything else. This song isn't as exultant as the second one is going to be; so far, she feels more confused than happy about this new feeling, at least that's what Schumann's music tells us. Our performer will be the great Kathleen Ferrier accompanied by John Newmark.
Sonst ist licht- und farblos
Alles um mich her,
Nach der Schwestern Spiele
Nicht begehr ich mehr,
Möchte lieber weinen,
Still im Kämmerlein;
Seit ich ihn gesehen,
Glaub ich blind zu sein.
(English translation by Kyle Gee)