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Frauenliebe und -leben, Op 42

11/12 July 1840
author of text

This is a cycle that every Lieder singer (soprano and mezzo that is, although the baritone Julius Stockhausen sang it in 1862) will be asked to perform. No one can deny that it is a work of enduring popularity. It happens that I first came across it thirty years ago at the same time as reading the newly-published feminist polemics of Germaine Greer. After having consulted the book of translations, this fledgling accompanist immediately decried the cycle for its clumsy and patronising depiction of female feelings and behaviour: surely only a male writer could depict a woman so lacking in spirit as to debase herself in front of a man, referring to herself (in the second song) as ‘niedre Magd’ – ‘lowly maid’? How bourgeois and complacent it was of poet and composer to devote songs to the engagement ring, to the wedding ceremony, to suckling the baby and so on! Later, I noticed to my surprise that the majority of female singers had fewer qualms about these things. For female singers, male competition does not enter the workplace; rivalry can only come, by its very nature, from other women (I can think of few other professions where this applies) and sisterhood, for its own sake, is not high on their list of priorities. Indeed, it was my experience that the majority of female singers tend to revel unashamedly in the emotions of Frauenliebe und -leben, although it must be admitted that when not artists of the first rank, this can reach cloying levels of sentimentality. This has always been the danger of the piece, and the trap for the performer.

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

Ce très célèbre cycle de Schumann («L’Amour et la vie d’une femme»), une séquence narrative de huit lieder, dans laquelle le postlude du numéro final rappelle la mélodie du premier, a suscité beaucoup de critiques au fil des ans, notamment de la part de femmes qui trouvent impudent qu’un poète ait mis de tels mots dans la bouche d’une protagoniste. En fait, Chamisso était un réformateur de gauche solidaire de la Révolution française et si son cycle ne saurait répondre aux attentes des féministes d’aujourd’hui, il constitue quelque chose d’exceptionnel pour les normes de l’époque: la narratrice est une femme, assez indépendante; elle tombe amoureuse d’une personne de classe sociale plus élevée (ce qui explique le profond respect et le manque d’assurance du premier lied), mais elle entre vite dans une relation d’égal à égal, un mariage au lieu de la simple liaison humiliante qui était habituellement la norme entre un gentilhomme bien né et une domestique. À partir du sixième lied, le radieux Süsser Freund, du blickest, l’auditeur sent qu’elle maîtrise totalement la situation: c’est elle qui annonce à son rythme qu’elle est enceinte à son mari énervé, et en nourrissant son enfant, elle plaint les hommes de ne pas pouvoir connaître l’amour maternel. Elle manifeste sa colère dans son chagrin d’une manière tout à fait incroyable et est l’héroïne stoïque de sa destinée permanente à la fin du dernier lied. Schumann et Chamisso devaient s’attendre aux critiques de leurs contemporains plus conservateurs pour avoir fait d’une femme à la fois la narratrice et la vedette d’une telle histoire—en réalité pour avoir transformé en sujet poétique et musical un tel scénario familial—et il est ironique que les commentateurs modernes reprochent au poète comme au compositeur (qui se comptaient parmi les progressistes) de n’avoir pas eu une meilleure compréhension des attitudes sociales du XXe siècle. Ceci mis à part, le pouvoir de cette musique parvient à surmonter ses erreurs d’appréciation politique, dont la perception reste erronée, et rares sont les sopranos et les mezzos qui restent à l’écart de cette œuvre.

extrait des notes rédigées par Graham Johnson © 2010
Français: Marie-Stella Pâris

Dieser berühmteste, aus acht Liedern in erzählerischer Folge bestehende Zyklus, in dem das Nachspiel der letzten Nummer zur Melodie der ersten zurückkehrt, ist im Lauf der Jahre vor allem von Frauen viel kritisiert worden, weil sie es als beleidigend empfanden, dass ein männlicher Dichter solche Worte einer Protagonistin in den Mund legt. Tatsächlich war Chamisso ein linker Reformist und Sympathisant der Französischen Revolution, und wenn sein Zyklus die Erwartungen heutiger Feministinnen enttäuscht, so hat er doch am Zeitgeist gemessen Bemerkenswertes erreicht: Die Erzählerin ist sehr unabhängig und verliebt sich in einen Mann über ihrem Stand (woraus sich die Achtung und Ehrfurcht der einleitenden Lieder erklärt) und wird schnell aufgenommen in eine Beziehung von Gleichberechtigten anstelle der üblichen erniedrigenden Affären zwischen Herrschaft und Dienstboten. Ab dem sechsten Lied, dem strahlenden Süsser Freund, du blickest, hat der Hörer den Eindruck, dass sie die Zügel vollkommen in der Hand hält: Sie teilt ihrem verstörten Gemahl in der ihr genehmen Zeit mit, dass sie schwanger ist, und bemitleidet beim Stillen des Kindes die Männer wegen ihrer Unfähigkeit, Mutterliebe zu empfinden. Als Trauernde drückt sie ihren Zorn vollkommen glaubhaft aus und bleibt am Ende des abschließenden Lieds als stoische Heldin ihres weiteren Schicksals zurück. Schumann und Chamisso konnten damit rechnen, von konservativeren Zeitgenossen dafür kritisiert zu werden, eine Frau als Erzählerin und Protagonistin einer solchen Geschichte oder überhaupt eine häusliche Szene als Gegenstand von Dichtung und Musik zu verwenden, doch ironischerweise werden Dichter und Komponist, die sich zu den Fortschrittlern zählten, von modernen Kommentatoren wegen mangelnden Verständnisses der sozialen Vorstellungen des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts kritisiert werden. Abgesehen davon ist die Musik kraftvoll genug, ihre falsch verstandenen Vorstellungen von politischer Korrektheit zu überwinden, und nur wenige Sopranistinnen und Mezzosopranistinnen unserer Zeit weigern sich, dieses Werk zu singen.

aus dem Begleittext von Graham Johnson © 2010
Deutsch: Henning Weber


Women's lives and loves
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No 1. Verse 1: Seit ich ihn gesehen
No 1. Verse 2: Seit ich ihn gesehen  Sonst ist licht- und farblos
No 1: Seit ich ihn gesehen
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No 2: Er, der Herrlichste von allen
Track 12 on CDA67563 [3'21]
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No 3. Verses 2, 3, 1: Ich kann's nicht fassen, nicht glauben  Mir war's, er habe gesprochen
No 3: Ich kann's nicht fassen, nicht glauben
Track 8 on CDJ33103 [1'35] Last few CD copies remaining
Track 27 on CDS44441/50 CD3 [1'35] 10CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
No 4: Du Ring an meinem Finger
Track 9 on CDJ33103 [2'45] Last few CD copies remaining
Track 28 on CDS44441/50 CD3 [2'45] 10CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
No 5. Verse 5 lines 4-6: Helft mir, ihr Schwestern  Aber euch, Schwestern
No 5: Helft mir, ihr Schwestern
Track 10 on CDJ33103 [1'55] Last few CD copies remaining
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No 6: Süsser Freund
No 6: Süsser Freund, du blickest
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No 7: An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust
Track 37 on CDA67563 [1'22]
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No 8. Postlude: Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan
No 8. Verse 1: Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan
No 8. Verses 2 & 3: Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz  Es blicket die Verlassne vor sich hin
No 8: Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan
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