Academic journal article Women & Music

Sounding the Frauenseele: Gender, Modernism, and Intertextuality in Alban Berg's "Uber Die Grenzen," Op. 4, No. 3

Academic journal article Women & Music

Sounding the Frauenseele: Gender, Modernism, and Intertextuality in Alban Berg's "Uber Die Grenzen," Op. 4, No. 3

Article excerpt

WHEN SCHOLARS DESCRIBE SOCIETAL and intellectual trends in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that affected musical modernism, they often include technological innovation, urbanization, and positivism, among other important factors. (1) Frequently omitted from musicians' experience of modernity, however, is the changing situation of women, an omission that can obscure the important aspect of gender discourse from our understanding of modern music. (2) In fact, shifts in the circumstances and societal perception of women arguably stand as one of the most significant changes of the modern era. A vociferous intellectual and literary debate had raged from the late nineteenth century onward over the idea of woman--issues ranging from her role in society to her effect on masculine identity and from the negative power of her "metaphysical essence" to her embodiment of Nature. (3) In Germanic lands this discourse came to be known as the Frauenfrage, or "woman question," and in various artistic and musical works the character and nature of woman was a deep-seated, if not explicit, concern. (4)

How can one argue that gender discourse affected the changing musical aesthetic? Certainly, the characterization or description of woman in a song or opera offers symbolic material for analysis. But what can we say about how an ideological discourse inflects a musical sound and its expression? Alban Berg, through the record of his reading in his books and journals, offers an exceptional insight into one modernist composer's perception and negotiation of the discourse on woman. With a study of Berg's reading of the Frauenfrage I specifically discuss the intertextual impact of its ideology on the musical style of the third song of op. 4, "Uber die Grenzen" (Beyond the Boundaries). The idea of intertextuality in music, or the interaction between language, music, and other expressive and symbolic forms, can illuminate complex strands of ideological production in a musical design. Intertextuality goes beyond questions of musical text painting, or the totality of a piece's narrative, and instead situates the local expression of musical gesture in response to the intellectual discursive environment that helped foster its inception, highlighting the interaction between rhythm, pitch, texture, and timbre. Why do particular sounds arise to fulfill the creative impulse of the composer? To study the possible impact of the Frauenfrage on this process, I look into Berg's discursive imagination.

Berg's confidence in his knowledge about woman is apparent in a letter he wrote to his American friend Frida Semler in July 1907 when he was twenty-two years old. (5) In it he discusses his knowledge and expertise in judging a woman's character, and he assures her that despite his age he had already developed a discerning knowledge of the "soul of woman" (Frauenseele). Previous to the passage quoted here, Berg expressed his excitement about a play Semler had recently written and her other college experiences.

   [Your personality] is far beyond the best of your
   female compatriots--and--I can calmly say-stands
   above the most noble (an expression from
   Altenberg) of your fellow women!! This looks
   like only idle flattery: but it is not. It is but a matter
   of experience. I imagine, and I know I am not
   wrong, that I know human nature in general, and
   the soul of woman in particular. This knowledge
   I have learned less from letters than from personal
   experience and perspective; and I can say,
   despite my youth with regard to these things that
   in these matters I have never been mistaken--on
   the contrary, I have always gotten it right.

   [Die Sie weir uber die besten Ihrer Landsmanninnen--und--ich
   kann ja ruhig sagen--uber
   die edelsten (das ist so ein Ausdruck yon
   Altenberg) Ihrer Geschlechtsgenossinnen stellt!!
   Das schaut nun aus ais ware es eitel Schmeichelei;
   doch dem ist nicht so: das ist nur eine
   Erfahrungstatsache: Ich bilde mit namlich
   eine---und Ich glaube nicht mit Unrecht--Menschenkenntnis
   im allgemeinen und Kenntnis
   der Frauenseele im besondern zu besitzen und
   schopfe ich dieses Wissen, weniger aus Briefen ais
   aus eigener Erfahrung und Anschauung; und ich
   kann, trotz meiner Jugend fur solche Dinge,
   behaupten, dass ich mich in diesen Anteilen nie
   getauscht--im Gegenteil immer das Richtige
   getroffen habe. … 
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