Frauenbild Fridays!

In German, Frauenbild translates to  “female image.” I remember first hearing the term in a course on Song Literature (yes, that’s a real course, and it’s two semesters) during my graduate degree, and it stuck with me.

A Frauenbild is the Madonna of the Madonna/whore complex. She is the perfect feminine image. She exists to assist a man on his journey to self-actualization; she is a prop, a manic pixie dream girl. Frauenbild is just another way of describing the male gaze; the idolatry and objectification of a woman, the act of putting the female figure on a pedestal, and expressing disgust, disdain, and disappointment when she falters. 

A Frauenbild is quintessentially romantic.

Admittedly late Romanticism, but a Frauenbild in action.
Edmund Blair Leighton, 1890.

I am a classically trained soprano and have spent years studying and performing operatic repertoire, American musical theatre, church music, and art song. Western art song was born in Europe during the Romantic era and encompasses the genre of poetry set by a composer for solo voice and piano accompaniment. Art song was often a way to have fun– anybody wealthy enough to have a piano could invite friends to their salon and sing songs together while they drank wine. Think of it as an old-time karaoke night. 

Today, art song lives on in the recital hall, and unlike the salons of France and Germany, it has become a tool for developing vocal technique and musicality for the young singer. Nobody is drinking whiskey and shouting Erlkönig anymore, and frankly, that in and of itself is a tragedy.

If you haven’t seen Jessye Norman’s bizarre Erlkönig, you haven’t lived.

Back to the Frauenbild– she is everywhere in art song! The presence of an unattainable feminine ideal during this time is not shocking, as our 19th-century composers and poets were nearly all men, and feminism as we know it was non-existent. Women were objects of male affection. For example, take Frauenliebe und -leben, written by Adelbert von Chamisso and set to music by Robert Schumann. It’s an entire song cycle about a woman falling in love, getting married, having babies and her husband dying. It’s also the only major work from this era and genre centering around a woman’s life. (Someone will challenge me on this, I’m ready to be proved wrong.) Anyway, the ONLY MAJOR WORK ABOUT A WOMAN’S LIFE, and men wrote it. Again, not shocking, just a little disappointing.

An illustration of our Frauenbild from the book Frauenliebe und -leben by Adalbert von Chamisso, illustrated by Paul Thumann.

If you’ve never heard of German art song (also known as Lieder) before this moment, I invite you not to dismiss this as stuffy nonsense. I love these songs. I don’t want people to stop performing them. I’m tired of classical music hiding in the walls of academia, destined to rot in a museum instead of blossoming in a state of rebirth into mainstream culture. They’re just songs, and I want to have some fun with them.  I want to imagine what the Frauenbild in Die schöne Müllerin was thinking (certainly not about the narrator) or who the woman behind the blue eyes in Brahms’ Dein blaues Auge could be. Did Clara Schumann have blue eyes? Let me know. 

Welcome to Frauenbild Fridays.


3 responses to “Frauenbild Fridays!”

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