It is sometimes the fate of works that are advanced for their time to be damned by later generations for not being radical enough. From the standpoint of Schumann’s time, the Chamisso cycle should be recognised and saluted as a remarkably forward-looking work, written by a man with an impeccable, and almost modern, attitude to human rights – indeed a man who supported the concept of female emancipation. On the work’s publication in 1831 (soon after the revolution in Paris which swept away the Bourbon monarchy and promised equality for all) the poet was greeted as the champion of women, and the work went into seventeen editions in as many years. Against the fashions of the time, Chamisso gave the role of the narrator to the woman, and she speaks for herself, in her own voice, from the beginning. She has the right to describe her feelings and, as shy as she is, she tells us why she finds the man attractive in the second song – his lips and eyes are as delectable as his gentle nature. In the sixth song she has already taken over the reins of household management, and announces her pregnancy to the astounded husband who hears the news very much on her terms. In the next song she pities men for not being able to know the joys of motherhood – suckling the child is openly mentioned, and celebrated, which was far from usual for the time. By the time she reaches the final song (in Schumann’s cycle) she has developed into a formidable personality, capable of dealing with her bereavement in a way that convincingly includes anger as part of the range of emotions. In Chamisso’s closing poem (not set by Schumann, but here read by Juliane Banse) it is clear that the mother has brought up her daughter successfully without compromising her integrity and her belief in the power of love. It is little wonder that the work was a wild success with its women readers, and that Chamisso was proud enough of his cycle of poems to place it at the head of his collected works.
All of this still leaves open the question as to why the protagonist should be so tentative in the beginning, so star-struck and servile. And the answer here makes Chamisso’s achievement even more remarkable, because he is writing about that most difficult of relationships in nineteenth-century life, a love affair across the class- and wealth barriers. This is not a courtship of equals taken from the pages of a Jane Austen novel where the heroine is able to answer her suitors back with healthy aplomb. Instead we have a girl who refers to herself as lowly not because of her sex, but because the object of her affection appears to be completely out of her reach in terms of his social position. She is even prepared selflessly to bless, in the second song, the woman of higher birth who will make him a suitable wife. It seems inevitable that she should suffer with a broken heart while watching him build a life with someone from his own background.
Stefan Zweig in Die Welt von gestern describes how the Viennese rich imported domestic staff from country villages to provide sexual partners safe from disease for their sons. One feels that the abandoned maidservant in the famous Mörike poem Das verlassene Mägdlein is probably pregnant by the son of her employer. When Chamisso’s heroine refers to herself as a ‘Magd’ she could be referring to herself as a maidservant, below stairs, and within the same house as the object of her adoration. The first song suggests that she sees him daily, as if in a waking dream, which would fit the scenario of a domestic servant’s relationship with the son of the house. When she looks back on her former life in the fourth song (Du Ring an meinem Finger) she seems to have much in common with the poor governess Jane Eyre: ‘Alone I found myself in boundless desolation’, she says. It was common enough for the poor to be the sexual playthings of the rich, but marriage was another matter. It is for this reason that our heroine can scarcely believe that he has chosen her as a bride, and that she claims that he has elevated and blessed here with his love. This does not refer to the elevation of a poor woman, per se, but to the triumph of love when a well-born young man insists on disregarding the social convention whereby he is allowed a mistress from the working-class, but not a wife. We are not told the social consequences of this marriage – we certainly hear nothing of his family. It is possible that he has been disinherited. This may account for the reference to her relatives (and not his) at the wedding (the fifth song), to the powerful sense of intimacy and emotional fragility on his part in the sixth, and to the feeling of her utter loneliness in the final song when she seems unsupported by anyone else on her husband’s death. Chamisso defied convention all his life, and it would make sense, in the context of his own sympathy for working-class characters (his poems are full of them) that this couple had done the same.
On the other hand one must beware of apologising for the different significance of marriage in another century. There is no doubt that the concept of duty and obedience to her husband would have been a natural part of Clara Wieck’s thinking, and also what Schumann would have expected as head of the house. The work was written in the same month as he made a down payment on a flat for his bride-to-be, and in the greatest expectation of the cosy marital bliss that is to be found depicted on some of these pages, a song cycle which takes place in the unique milieu of living-room and bedroom. Woven into this dream of cosy normality, however, we have fragments of Schumann’s own past which also played their part in his sympathy with the poems. Nine years older than Clara, the composer had already had his share of romantic adventures. In 1831 in Leipzig (as it happened, in the same year and town of these poems’ publication) Schumann had had an affair with a girl, poor and illiterate, who revered him and whose attitude to him could not have been far from the sentiments expressed in this cycle’s opening songs. He did not marry her, but perhaps, if he had resembled Chamisso’s wordless suitor and husband, he might have done so. The name of ‘Christel’ features fleetingly in Schumann’s diaries, but her ghost hovers through these pages side-by-side with the dominating presence who was the source of inspiration for so much music, the indomitable, the extraordinary, the far from servile Clara Wieck. It should also be noted that Schumann was not the first to set this cycle. That honour belonged to Carl Loewe in 1836.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1999
extrait des notes rédigées par Graham Johnson © 2010
Français: Marie-Stella Pâris
aus dem Begleittext von Graham Johnson © 2010
Deutsch: Henning Weber
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