Pamela Dellal, mezzo soprano


uncommon intelligence, imagination and textual awareness...



Schumann: Frauenliebe und -leben, op. 42

Schumann’s song cycle Frauenliebe und -leben, op. 42, is one of his most beloved, and most controversial, works. Written in the midst of his fecund ‘year of song’ 1840, immediately following his long-delayed marriage to Clara Wieck, it represents the pinnacle of Schumann’s genius at melding text and musical gesture, harmony and emotion, and vocal expression with pianistic eloquence. Nevertheless, this one cycle among all his vocal works has drawn harsh criticism for the choice of poetry, the subject matter, and even for extra-musical considerations such as political sensibility or autobiographical inferences. Every time I have performed this great work I’ve confronted the controversy that surrounds it; both personally and from my audiences. The perception is that the piece is an uneasy marriage of problematic poetry with transcendent music, and that the portrait of womanhood depicted in the cycle is limited, outdated, and anti-feminist.

The sheer domesticity of the narrative of Frauenliebe has put some listeners off. However, our heroine is sharing only this part of her life with us; there’s nothing in any of the poetry that suggests that she couldn’t also be the CEO of a large corporation, a brilliant jurist, or a great artist like Clara, Schumann’s new wife and the possible model for this character. In fact, the language that most rankles critics of the piece, such as the line “let me bow down to my Lord” in “Helft mir, ihr Schwestern,” can be compared with Kate’s famous speech from Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, where a great love, a great partnership, is revealed as mutual respect, worship, and cherishing of the beloved. Certainly this type of elevation is extremely common from the male perspective. This imagery can be placed beside the maturity, tenderness, and true intimacy of “Süsser Freund” where the woman addresses her husband with affectionate whimsy as she explains her tears of joy.

If one regards the poetic cycle as poems written by the protagonist herself, capturing the events and emotional stages of her life, our heroine becomes an artist in her own right, struggling with conflicting perceptions of her childhood, womanhood, and desires. Schumann enhances this perception musically, by subtle intra-cycle references, and by editing Chamisso’s poems to keep the diction on an elevated level. In one famous instance, the stanzas that make the protagonist’s pregnancy explicit in the sixth song have been excised, so that the focus is exclusively on the relationship between the woman and her husband.

Ultimately, whatever the judgment on Chamisso’s poems, the work stands on the genius of Robert Schumann.  Schumann creates a protagonist who has a rich inner life, whose self-effacement dissolves into ecstatic transcendance as she embraces a requited love. The passionate self-renunciation of “Er, der herrlichste”, the quiet musing of “Du Ring” and the radiant self-realization of “Helft mir” reveal a complex woman who examines and creates her life with poetic sensibility. The sheer joyfulness of the cycle, as the heroine’s dreams are progressively enlarged and realized, is in itself a tremendous artistic challenge; a challenge embraced by the newlywed and newly content Robert.

I remember my beloved voice teacher, Ellalou Dimmock, performing this work many times when I was a student. She used to tell me how one feels differently about this piece as a young woman than from the perspective of maturity. To sing the piece now, under the auspices of the Emmanuel Music Schumann series, carries so much special meaning in this light. As a very young singer, Craig Smith showed incredible, and possibly unwarranted, faith in me by assigning me the cycle in the first Schumann series at Emmanuel, back in 1990. Compounding my intimidation, Craig asked the great accompanist Allen Rogers, who had been my professor at BU, to collaborate with me. While I hope I am not yet in my own twilight years, I come back to the piece nearly 20 years later with my dear friend and colleague Michael Beattie, also once a student of Allen Rogers, and after a career filled with great music and difficult losses - Ellalou, Allen, Craig. A life filled with love - love of people, love of music, love of singing - that has been immeasurably fuller and deeper than I could have dreamed back in 1990. One woman’s life and love...

© Pamela Dellal