‘Since first seeing him, I think I am blind, Wherever I look, Him only I see’. These besotted words open Robert Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben, regarded as one of his great song cycles alongside Dichterliebe and the Eichendorff-Liederkreis. This cycle emerged in 1840, Robert’s ‘Liederjahr’ (‘Year of song’), during which songs flowed from him at a miraculous rate.
The 30 year-old’s inspiration was both emotional and practical. Robert was frantically in love with the supremely gifted pianist Clara Wieck, but needed to persuade his would-be father-in-law, Friedrich Wieck, that he could financially support his intended bride. Famously, Wieck opposed the marriage so ferociously that he took Schumann to court; he lost the case, and the couple married a day before Clara’s 21st birthday. Always sensitive to poetry, Robert’s creativity flowed into piano-accompanied song.
What is the story behind Frauenliebe und -leben?
The cycle’s story is straightforward: over first three songs, a girl falls in love; she gets engaged in the fourth, ‘Du Ring an meinem Finger’ (‘You ring on my finger’); ‘Helft mir, ihr Schwestern’ (‘Help me, my sisters’) describes her wedding morning; ‘Süsser Freund, du blickest’ (‘Sweet friend, you look [at me in wonder]’) makes a discreet allusion to their first sexual encounter; and her new baby is celebrated in ‘An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust’ (‘On my heart, at my breast’). The closing song abruptly announces the death of her husband. The shock is absorbed in a lengthy piano postlude which recalls the opening song, poignantly re-evoking the bliss of new love.
The songs were written two months before the Schumanns’ wedding, with many others, such as the Drei Gesänge Op. 31 and the Fünf Lieder Op. 40. By now, Robert was an expert in constructing cyclical works; his decision to recall earlier music in the extended solo piano postlude, for instance, had been tested in his cycle Dichterliebe; such a gesture bound the songs into a beautiful whole. After composition, he set them aside, tidying them up for the publisher only in 1843.
Who wrote the lyrics?
Appealing lyric songs like these were destined for the vast amateur market for printed music and pianos. Schumann selected lyrics by the aristocrat Adelbert von Chamisso, a famous naturalist whose French family had emigrated to Berlin before the Revolution. Chamisso’s fascinating life included a global circumnavigation in 1815-18, and among his extensive writings was a treatise on the Hawaiian language. Alongside his day job as head of the Berlin Botanic Garden, he was a minor poet; Schumann was the only significant composer to set his words.
Chamisso wrote no fewer than five cycles of poems on middle-class women’s lives. These had no autobiographical significance; he was long married, with four children, and had reconciled with his wife after he had an affair. His poetry reflected a fascination with domestic family life in 1830s German-speaking lands after the Napoleonic wars. It was aimed at middle-class, leisured women at a time when girls remained their fathers’ legal property until marriage (hence Clara’s battle to marry Robert); thereafter, ownership passed to the husbands.
Was Clara one of those leisured, middle-class woman the song cycle was aimed at?
Clara Wieck was certainly no leisured, middle-class woman. Unsurprisingly, their personal accounts reveal that Robert and Clara fought bitterly the day the cycle was completed. Three years earlier, she had expressed her fears about the effect of marriage on her thriving career; Robert’s response was ‘The first year of our marriage you shall forget the artist, you shall live only for yourself and your house and your husband’.
During their 16-year marriage, Clara fell pregnant eight times, and recalled one miscarriage as a relief. Her friend the singer Pauline Viardot-Garcia advised her to ‘watch her health’ (a discreet reference to birth control). It may not be a coincidence that the widowed Clara Schumann’s own performances of the cycle, with different singers, usually ended with the fifth song – the morning of the wedding day.
How was Frauenliebe und -leben received?
At the cycle’s premiere in 1849, Clara Schumann was at the piano, accompanying her friend, the baritone Julius Stockhausen. The song recital was in its infancy and the concert stage was regarded as a largely gender-neutral space, something which baritones Matthias Goerne and Roderick Williams, among others, have recently explored. In 1865, the publisher Heinze released a luxury edition of the songs, with a photograph of Schumann, boosting their popularity.
But disquiet soon emerged; by the 1880s, critics started expressing disapproval of the seventh song, in which the young mother suckles her baby, declaring that that such words had no place on the public stage. In the 1940s, the great soprano Lotte Lehmann felt that the texts were ‘old-fashioned’, although she continued to admire the songs. In 1999, the pianist and song expert Graham Johnson warned that unless the performers are ‘artists of the first rank’, the work can reach ‘cloying levels of sentimentality’. And in late 2020, mezzo Elīna Garanča declared that she feels ‘very defensive when people say that they find the texts ridiculous’; to her, they are ‘glorious’. And so, the work continues to provoke everything from despair to delight with each new performance.
Find out more about Robert Schumann and his works here
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