Editors’ note: This piece is adapted from Song and Self: A Singer’s Reflections on Music and Performance, by Ian Bostridge, published this month by University of Chicago Press.

In all performance, identity is something that we performers have to confront. We play a “double part.” Each time we stand up onstage to deliver, to reproduce, to transmit a text, be it musical or literary or a combination of the two, we have a decision to make (conscious or unconscious) about the character of that text and about the stance we adopt towards it. How are we, quite literally, to embody it? Do we take on the identity of the text we have absorbed, or does the text reconfigure itself as it is molded to the identity of the performer?

There are many ways of approaching this question, and many orthodoxies that are, sometimes unthinkingly, lodged at the center of critical discourse. Central to much appreciation of the Western art-music tradition is the idea of “interpretation,” but interpretation understood as a part-shamanic, part-scientific quest for the “right” performance. It’s a strange notion, and one we don’t apply in quite the same way to the spoken theater. A great actor’s “interpretation” of Macbeth, Hedda Gabler, or Archie Rice is simply his or her performance. The actor takes the text and runs with it, and the performance that results is not typically a search for something legitimate or authoritative.

A performance in the spoken theater is a negotiation between text and actors.

Interpres in Latin is the agent between two parties, a broker or negotiator. A performance in the spoken theater is a negotiation between text and actors. In classical music there is a paradox at work in which the ideal interpretation is, essentially, a noninterpretation. There has long been a tendency rather to privilege the text, in this case the musical score, a tendency that reached its apogee in twentieth-century abstract music with the notion that the performer is ideally a transparent individual. Composers like Stravinsky hoped, through notational exactitude, to remove the freedom of the performer; not for nothing did he experiment with the mechanical piano roll in the 1920s as a way of escaping the painful necessity for the intermediation of a performer.

Interpretation, understood in this way, is about taking the text left behind by the composer and using it to intuit an ideal performance that remains unachievable but that is nevertheless an absolute regulatory principle and an aspiration. Much time in rehearsal is spent arguing about what the composer “meant” (though in practice quite often ignoring it). The ultimate expression of this regime was articulated by the theorist Heinrich Schenker (1868–1935): “Basically a composition does not require a performance in order to exist. . . . The reading of the score is sufficient.”

There’s something profoundly theological about this, but it is surely a kick in the teeth for the performer. The classical singer stands somehow, and a little awkwardly, between these two poles. For an opera singer, the demands of the theater and a theatrical attitude of mind largely predominate. An opera singer is an actor. In the concert repertoire, and more particularly in the field of song, things are more confused, and there is often a demand or a felt need to avoid dramatization, a self-denying ordinance in the service of some idea of an uninterpreted, natural delivery, which somehow connects to Stravinsky’s suspicion of expressivity in classical music. This notion of a natural delivery is, of course, a myth—all art is artifice—but the debate on how to deliver song goes right back to Schubert’s day.

Music is a quintessentially social activity.

Thankfully, a new turn in musicology has been recognizing that music, quite simply, is performance, not just the written text. Music is a quintessentially social activity. Of course, in our highly literate tradition of classical music-making, the composer has a unique power, authority, and charisma, and the technologies of music composition and the genius of the composers who have used and developed them have created a tradition of extraordinary power and longevity, from Monteverdi via Mozart and Beethoven to Adès.

At the same time, performers, all performers, like actors, have to take the music and run with it. The text we have cannot exhaustively encode all the parameters of possible performances, and while the text may be the starting point, and research into its meanings a useful and constraining discipline, in the end what we have is a recipe for making performances that, in one way or another, move our audiences. This is, in fact, as much the case for instrumental music as it is for vocal music in the classical tradition. In his brilliant essay “Musical Character(s) in Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas,” the pianist Alfred Brendel contends that in the piano music of Beethoven, over and above the analysis and deployment of structure, “it is the interpreter’s responsibility to play the roles of different characters.” If this is the case for abstract music of the highest intellectual charge, how much more so for sung music, for music that has a literary text and assumes if not a literal character—as in works for the theater—then at least a persona, as in the world of song.

Robert Schumann’s song cycle for voice and piano Frauenliebe und Leben, Op. 42, inhabits the world of the Romantic lied. One of the most prestigious classical genres of the nineteenth century, the lied was virtually invented by Franz Schubert in the course of his short life. Piano and voice conspire to present a psychologically convincing persona, one with psychoanalytical pre-echoes: the voice speaks in conscious mode while the piano melds together the external world and the unconscious in waves of emotional yearning.

Frauenliebe is an extraordinarily compelling and moving piece of music. In the course of eight songs, settings of poems by Adelbert von Chamisso, we are witness to the experiences of a young woman who falls in love, marries, becomes pregnant, nurses her baby, and is widowed. If we only had a bare title for each song and no words to understand the detail, we would nevertheless still feel the emotional compulsion of the work, as we do with Schumann’s wordless but literary piano cycles of the 1830s. The work closes with a meditative but devastating postlude in the shadow of the husband’s death. The music of the first song of the cycle, that first encounter with the beloved (“Seit ich ihn gesehen, glaub ich blind zu sein”) returns, but with the vocal melody at first veiled and then vanishing, leaving only a memory in the mind of the listener.

Charles Rosen, a pianist and one of the great writers about music, has analyzed the subtle power of this supreme evocation of memory in music:

The postlude is a memory, and part of the memory is missing: it has to be recalled, willed to return—as it inevitably is. Schumann has forced the listener to acknowledge the eternal imperfection of memory and to complete the song. The end of the cycle is not a return but the ghost of a return, a fragment or shadow of the original. The voice no longer exists, and with it has died part of the melody.

Frauenliebe remains one of the most frequently performed of the song cycles of the Romantic period—partly because of its sheer affective power, its innovative and compelling recreation of a domestic tragedy, and partly because it is one of the few song cycles with a poetic persona that is definitively female. But Frauenliebe is also something of an embarrassment today because of the nature of the texts, which seem to inhabit a world of nineteenth-century paternalism that twenty-first-century singers and twenty-first-century audiences find uncomfortable. Today, singers and program notes in the concert hall more often than not apologize for the piece as if it were a manifesto rather than a work of art from long ago.

The apparent submissiveness of the poems can be troubling.

It is true that the apparent submissiveness of the poems can be troubling. “Since I first saw him, I believe myself blind”; “You may not notice me, a lowly maiden”; “How could he from among all of them have uplifted and favored lowly me”; “I shall serve him, live for him, belong wholly to him”; “Let me in humility bow down to my lord.” In fact, some nineteenth-century listeners felt the same way. Theodor Storm complained to his fellow writer Paul Heyse in 1874, “Mörike [the poet] once told me how distasteful all this was to him, and these are exactly my sentiments.”

Nevertheless many of the tropes of Frauenliebe are borrowed from the catalogue not of female but of male submission in love, something Schumann surely acknowledges in songs like the second one of the cycle, “Er, der herrlichste von allen,” with its fanfare-like motif in voice and piano, traditional chivalric rhetoric transferred to the female voice. The sheer passion of Frauenliebe’s rhetoric, musically and poetically, is a world away from the nineteenth-century ideal of the sexless, passive angel in the house. And the overarching theme of the cycle is not submission but loss—this is the final effect of the expressive arc of the cycle, the key to its emotional power, its visceral and aesthetic impact.

So what we confront in singing and playing and hearing Frauenliebe today is a necessary complexity, the complexity of confronting a passionate woman brought to life in words and music by two mid-nineteenth-century men and, in turn, usually impersonated by a twenty-first-century female singer. Looking at how Schumann’s Frauenliebe came into being can deepen our response to it and further elaborate the tensions of identity that give it life. It was Gustave Flaubert who famously declared, “Je suis Madame Bovary,” and in many senses it is Robert Schumann himself who is the protagonist of Frauenliebe und Leben.

Schumann wrote the Frauenliebe und Leben cycle in the magical year of 1840, the year in which he wrote almost all of his famous song cycles—Dichterliebe, Op. 48; the Op. 24 and Op. 39 Liederkreisen, to poems by Heine and Eichendorff, respectively; and the Kerner Lieder, Op. 35. Another of the cycles, Myrthen, Op. 25, was explicitly intended as a wedding gift, a garland of myrtles to celebrate his impending union with the famous pianist and active composer Clara Wieck.

Robert met Clara when he lodged with her family as a piano student of her father, the legendary teacher Friedrich Wieck. Friedrich had raised Clara to be a great virtuoso, and he resisted her marriage to Schumann to the bitter end. The 1840 flowering of song, a genre that Schumann, the master of the piano miniature, had hitherto avoided, spoke to the sense of elated productivity that stemmed in turn from the coming to fruition of the struggle to marry Clara. In true Romantic fashion, and reflecting the legal and personal struggles surrounding their union, these cycles are full of love, jealousy, rejection, fury, frustration—all the feelings that surged and struggled in Schumann’s head since he had first committed himself to Clara.

As the conflict reached its apogee in 1839–40, Robert was almost overwhelmed. Frauenliebe emerged from this maelstrom in July 1840. June had been a month of intense legal argument, and the marriage was finally to be celebrated in September. It reflects the singular but vexed closeness that bound together these two extraordinary musicians—Robert, the creator of new forms in music, and Clara, one of the greatest pianists of her day and a composer too. If anything is likely to confirm that Frauenliebe is not a straightforwardly soupy celebration of female subjection, it is that it was written by Robert with Clara in mind.

His admiration for her as an artist was profound and lasting.

Clara was a potentially brilliant composer (the current revival of her early piano concerto is leading to a reassessment of this lost talent—she largely gave up composing not long into her marriage), and she was one of the star pianists of the day, a much bigger name than Schumann. Schumann’s attitude towards his fiancée remained highly conflicted. His admiration for her as an artist was profound and lasting—“My Clara played everything like a master,” he could declare in the second year of their marriage—but at the same time it was compromised by a desire for her to give herself to him as a wife and not an artist.

A letter of September 1838 could move within a few lines from a declaration that her art was “great and holy” to an insistence that “my Clara will be a happy wife, a contented, beloved wife.” A year later he was musing “about our first summer in Zwickau as married folks . . . young wives must be able to cook and keep house if they want satisfied husbands.” A few weeks after that: “You shall forget the artist, you shall live only for yourself and your house and your husband.” In the same year, Robert had asked Clara to “trust and obey me: after all, men are above women.”

The reality of the Schumanns’ marriage was a complex one, recorded in depth in their marriage diaries, continually reflecting the pull between bourgeois convention and the life of the artist. Clara composed less, but she continued her career as an internationally feted (and well-paid) pianist, often to her husband’s frustration despite his admiration for her superlative artistry. Frauenliebe seems to encode Robert’s desires and anxieties as much as it speaks for the role of the woman who was to become his wife so soon after its composition. Here he is in December 1838, prostrate before her, abject, submissive:

It is from you that I receive all life, on whom I am wholly dependent. Like a slave, I should often like to follow you from afar at a distance, and await your slightest bidding.

Reading another passage from a letter from Robert to Clara of 1838, two years before their marriage, it is difficult not to think of one of the most famous songs of the Frauenliebe cycle, “Du Ring an meinem Finger,” in which the bride apostrophizes her wedding ring and sings affectingly of her love for her husband. Here is the opening of the poem:

You ring on my finger,

My golden little ring,

I press you devoutly to my lips,

To my heart.

And here is Robert’s troubled letter:

And now, since you value my ring so little, I care no longer for yours, since yesterday, and wear it no longer. I dreamed that I was walking by deep water—and an impulse seized me and I threw the ring into the water—and then I was filled with a passionate longing to plunge in after it.

The deep identification that Robert felt between himself and Clara as their marriage approached is apparent in the envoi to a letter of March 1839 in which he muddles genders and blurs identities: “Adieu my heart of hearts, beloved brother of my heart, dearest husband [the masculine form of spouse, Ehegemahl], adieu, I love you with all my heart.” He signs the letter not as Robert Schumann but as Robert Wieck. So here are more layers of complexity to add to our response to Frauenliebe and to the construction of the identity of its protagonist-persona: Schumann’s own anxieties and ambivalences about his relationship with Clara and his own deep identification with her.

What then would it mean for a man to sing Frauenliebe? There is a long tradition of lieder in a male voice being sung by women, from Schubert’s own day to ours. Frauenliebe is today largely a female preserve, despite the recent intervention of some distinguished male voices such as the baritones Matthias Goerne and Roderick Williams. It is fascinating to note, however, that probably the earliest concert performance of the whole cycle, with Clara Schumann herself at the piano, was given by a man, the baritone Julius Stockhausen, in 1862. I hope to find an opportunity to perform Frauenliebe in the future. It belongs to us all; all performers can find in it an expression of universal human concerns and experiences, subtle and multivalent articulations of subjectivity and emotional engagement.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 8, on page 12
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