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Robert Schumann: Süsser Freund

I have to feature the work that loomed largest for me this year, Robert Schumann’s iconic Frauenliebe und leben. I finally learned it all and performed it after years of wanting to do so but never finding the time or the right venue to make myself just do it. The right time turned out to be my April recital for Carnegie Hall’s Neighborhood Concerts series which I performed with Alden Gatt, a wonderful pianist and friend of mine. Since I first became acquainted with the cycle in grad school (having been assigned the first song), I just loved it — stunningly beautiful songs with such a great arc and variety of moods and so many wonderful harmonic moments. Looking more into Aldelbert von Chamisso’s text, of course, I learned that it is considered controversial by some because of its very traditional depiction of a woman’s life and her place in society; some of the lines, imply she worships the man she loves like a God, which of course makes us feminists bristle! I admit I was a little iffy about it at first. Yes, this woman was obsessed, and yes, she put everything she had into her husband and her child, but of course in the end that leads her to be completely destroyed by the death of her husband, so it’s not exactly a 100% rosy picture of what it meant to be a woman at that time. And though it can feel problematic to a modern audience, in the context of the life of an 18th-century woman, who would not have been able to own property of her own, and who wasn’t allowed as much of a life outside of her family, her obsession with marriage and motherhood makes more sense. (And let’s be honest, who among us of any gender hasn’t gotten a little obsessed with a newly-found love interest and been unable to think of anything else for a time?) Though it’s written by a man, the delving so deep into the perspective of a woman in this way was an unusual thing at that time, so I actually came to feel that it honored women in its way. And the way Schumann felt about his love, Clara, I always thought he understood these same feelings himself. It’s a complicated issue to which a short blog-post can’t do justice, but I read many articles on both sides of the topic, and there are a number of interesting and valid points of view out there to read!* Nonetheless, even before I had really come to terms with my appreciation of the text, I have always found the music to be undeniably sublime.

It was hard for me to single out one song, as they are all wonderful in their own way, and they all work best together as a unit. The song I probably enjoy singing the most is “Er, der Herrlichste von allen” — I really love that one. But I think the most special piece is the sixth song, “Süsser Freund.” It captures such a sweet, tender moment, as she is lying in bed with her husband; she is emotional knowing that she is pregnant, but he doesn’t know it yet. My favorite musical moment in the entire cycle is the start of the middle section of this song (around 2:00 in this recording) and the next several measures after that – she has just finished saying “I want to whisper all my happiness in your ear,” before the piano sets up this section, and then something about that melody that follows and the harmonies beneath it, as she says, “Do you know now why I weep these tears?” just melts me.

It’s also a nearly impossible task to pick a recording among the many fantastic ones that are out there! Besides this one here, I have some other favorites of the entire cycle including Elly Ameling, Janet Baker… oh, too many to name. But especially in listening to this particular song, I just really loved the way Anne Sofie von Otter delivered the tenderness of this piece — the diction, and sensitivity, and the warmth — it’s all there. And the sensitive playing of pianist Bengt Forsberg complements von Otter’s artistry so wonderfully. I love the way she sings the entire cycle, so check that out as well. (Of course you could go down a YouTube rabbit hole if you’re not careful!)

Well, it looks like this Song-of-the-Day week has turned into a rave about another one of my mezzo-soprano idols each day! And I’m okay with that. 🙂

*Side-note: another way we “dealt” with the potential discomfort with the traditional text is to pair it with Harbison’s Mirabai Songs, which present quite a different take on the role of a woman! More on that tomorrow!

Hector Berlioz: La mort d’Ophélie

In anticipation of NYFOS’s program Lyrics by Shakespeare, performed on August 8 as part of Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, we are featuring a week of songs inspired by Shakespeare on Song of the Day. It will be held in the intimate Kaplan Penthouse so seating is limited; get your tickets today!


Today’s Shakespeare song moves a bit further from his actual words, with an adaptation of this famous scene from Hamlet. Hector Berlioz sets Ernest-Wilfrid Legouvé’s text depicting the death of Ophelia, here performed by Anne Sofie von Otter with Cord Garben at the piano.

Schumann: Des Sennen Abschied

This week I am in the Berkshires, preparing for a performance at Tanglewood of my Variations on a Summer Day, songs which in part were previewed on the NYFOS Next series two years ago.  Songs about summer, and about mountains, spring to mind.  I am numbering these days of perfection, sad for them to end but already making plans for the fall. Over and again I am hearing Robert Schumann’s song Des Sennen Abschied, to Friedrich Schiller’s poem, their farewell to the willows and wells of water and flowers of the season.  The narrator is an Alpine hersdman, proclaiming “Der Sommer ist hin,” or “The summer is gone.”

The open, clean drone of a fifth, in the open, clean key of C Major announces the new, sparer season.  The E, which would make the chord full and vibrant, is mostly missing from the opening.  But as the text turns to the defining characteristics of summer, the music shifts not only to include the E but to move toward E major as a key, as if bathing us in summer light.  Just as the music would cadence in E major, giving summer to us as something we could keep, Schumann substitutes the opening drone, and the season and its wonders vanish.  Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg do a remarkable job with it.

In the summer of his life, in the year 1840, Schumann wrote well over one hundred songs, among them the songs that comprise his well-known cycles DichterliebeLiederkreis and Fraunliebe und Leben.  But this song issues from a decade later, in the autumn of his life, and I can’t help but assume that this song is the effort of an auto-biographer.

Robert Schumann, Des Sennen Abschied, Opus 79, no. 22
Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano; Bengt Forsberg, piano
Deutsche Grammophon

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