Frauenliebe und Leben

('A Woman's Love and Life') A song cycle for soprano or mezzo-soprano and piano, Opus 42 by Schumann.

Frauenliebe und Leben is a cycle of 8 lieder (songs) by the German composer Robert Schumann, settings of texts by Adelbert von Chamisso, an early 19th Century romantic poet born French but writing in German, his second language.

Ostensibly, these songs tell a simple story of a woman falling in love, marrying, conceiving a child, and dying. Each song captures a snapshot of emotion, and Schumann, although not an especially melodic songwriter, is certainly capable of overwhelming us with emotion.

  1. Seit ich ihn gesehen (Since I have seen him)
    In which our heroine finds herself blinded by the beauty of a man she's just met.
  2. Er, der Herrlichste von allen (He, the most glorious of all)
    In which she praises his beauty as though he is a distant star.
  3. Ich kann's nicht fassen, nicht glaben (I cannot grasp nor believe it)
    In which, after his proposal, she wishes she would die in his dreams.
  4. Du Ring an meinem Finger (You ring on my finger)
    In which, contemplating infinity, she feels herself transfigured.
  5. Helft mir, ihr Schwestern (Help me, my Sisters)
    In which she forgoes her childhood and is married.
  6. Süßer Freund (Sweet Friend)
    In which she forsees in her unborn child only the spirit of her husband
  7. An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust (On my heart, on my breast)
    In which she reconciles her feelings after the child's birth.
  8. Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan (Now you have caused me the first pain)
    In which, with the death of her husband, she herself is reborn.

Modern listeners frequently have a problem with this famous cycle, and more often than not it lies with the lyrics and story. Let's make no bones about it, they're not just drippy, they're gopping. Our narrator is, in the true sense, a pathetic character. She comes across as an entirely passive woman who lives for and worships her husband and child, lives only for them and is ultimately consumed by her devotion to them. It is, at first reading, merely a 19th century exercise in male idealism.

I'd love to offer my redemptive alternative reading, at least for the human impact of the cycle as a whole, but I'm not going to. I think it's up to each listener to draw their own conclusions. Suffice it to say that I believe this work, in its simple, spiritual tale and cyclic structure, lends itself to allegory, and accordingly, each individual will interpret it differently and at their own level. So 'ner.

Leaving the lyrics aside, then, there is still a wealth of beauty and invention to be enjoyed in the music.

The piano in Schumann's lieder tends to take a supporting role to the vocal, as opposed to Schubert's lied where the two are almost of equal importance. Generally simple, and usually chordal, the piano parts are still responsible for much of the development of motif and unity in the piece. Many of the songs have a transitional piano coda to prepare the listener for the next song; acting as tiny mood-changing interludes in the overall work, they also strengthen the flow of the story between songs. The role of the piano is rarely pictorial as in many of Schubert's lieder but instead given over to supporting the voice in communicating the emotional meaning of a song. One exception is the wedding march which is to be heard in the fifth song.

It is important to note the cyclic structure of the work. This effect is produced in a simple-but-effective way, through the device of 'wrapping' a motif established at the beginning of the first song around to the end of the last. It is a single bar's music that forms much of the accompaniment for the first song, and then is restated as the coda to the recitative final song.

The song keys can also be seen to unify the cycle; the tonic key is Bb major, and only one song, the reflective An meinem Herzen, is written in a sharp key; there are no great jumps of tonality between songs. Although most of the songs are self-contained in their tonality, the final song is an exception, beginning in F and ending in Bb. This does allow recapitulation of the opening motif as described, but a lesser composer may have written the entirety of the final song in Bb for this purpose. In a way, the final song does not resolve harmonically in the traditional sense, and this does indeed reduce its impact as a song standing alone, outside of the cycle. However, in a subtle way, that apparent loss of closure in the last song actually reinforces the cycle -- there is no compulsion to play the work from the beginning again, because the overall tonal arc has been completed.

We should go on to discuss the many other ways unity is maintained, including piano figuration and melodic line, but this more detailed discussion belongs with the individual songs (and there is plenty more to be said for each of them, anyway.) Suffice it to say that the cycle is a masterpiece of unity, and really deserves to be listened to in its totality.

Thanks to Sally, my A-level music teacher, whose enthusiasm and scant regard for copyright laws respectively left me with a love of lieder and an awful lot of photocopied music. I've even found my full copy of the score (knew I had one around here somewhere) so I've corrected a little fuzziness regarding keys.