Academic journal article Women & Music

Their Paths, Her Ways: Comparison of Text Settings by Clara Schumann and Other Composers

Academic journal article Women & Music

Their Paths, Her Ways: Comparison of Text Settings by Clara Schumann and Other Composers

Article excerpt

Literary scholars have long recognized that gender can influence how writers present narratives. In particular, a number of feminist literary theorists, such as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, have discussed the tendency for women to adopt a perspective that differs from that of their male counterparts, so as to establish a somewhat separate literary tradition. (1) This is not to imply that women writers express a monolithic viewpoint or that writers cannot transcend their own personal perspective. Rather, it simply acknowledges that much as one's own life experience--which is of course greatly affected by one's gender--can influence how one views people and situations in general, so can the life experiences of authors or poets influence how they portray the characters and situations in their own literary creations.

The same is true when composers deal with literary texts. Of all the areas in which the gender of a composer can affect a work of music, perhaps none is so readily apparent as text setting. Much as the different life experiences of women and men certainly may color their interpretations of a poem, these differences of interpretation in turn could help shape their musical settings. Especially in the best of songs, where the settings can reveal much about the composers' personal reactions to the text, the gendered perspective of the composers can deeply influence the final product.

A number of good examples that suggest the influence of gender on text settings by a woman may be found in the lieder of Clara Schumann. Though limited in number, Schumann's songs are consistently brilliant. Many of the poems that she set were set also by various other leading song composers. Comparing Schumann's settings with these others helps demonstrate how the composer's gender can subtly determine musical features of a song. In this essay, I will look at four of Schumann's songs and match them against settings by celebrated male composers, including Loewe, Schubert, Wolf, Grieg, Mozart, and Franz. (2) In each case, as we shall see, Schumann presents a point of view that is quite different from those offered by her male counterparts, for she tends to establish the woman character in her songs as a presence distinct from that of the male gaze.

Sie liebten sich beide

The settings of Heinrich Heine's "Sie liebten sich beide" by Clara Schumann and Carl Loewe provide an apt starting point for such a comparison. (3) Heine's poem tells the tale of a man and woman who never express the love they have for one another:

   Sie liebten sich beide, doch keiner 
   wollt' es dem anderen gestehn. 
   Sie sahen sich an so feindlich, 
   und wollten vor Liebe vergehn. 
   Sie trennten sich endlich, und sah'n sich 
   nur noch zuweilen im Traum. 
   Sie waren langst gestorben, 
   und wussten es selber kaum. 
   They loved each other, but neither 
   wanted to confess it to the other. 
   They looked at one another with such hostility, 
   and nearly perished from so much desire. 
   They finally parted, and saw one another 
   only occasionally in dreams. 
   They had died a long time ago, 
   and they themselves scarcely knew it. 

Schumann sets this text in a tragic vein, using a minor key and harmonies filled with poignant suspensions. Her song is pervaded by a descending sigh motive similar to one that Schumann had used previously in her setting of "Volkslied," a posthumously published song that focuses on a love that is cut off by death (ex. 1). In "Sie liebten sich beide" this motive is presented three times in the piano introduction, and the singer enters as if to echo these three statements of the motive. Unlike the piano introduction, however, the vocalist stops ascending after the second statement of the motive, as though "trapped" on the high E[flat]-D (ex. 2). The E[flat]-D figure is then repeated down an octave (mm. …

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