Alright, here we go. You’ve been on a couple of dates, texted back and forth about your music tastes, consumed too many glasses of wine together–and this new person is the BEST! They’re perfect for you, and you can’t get enough of every part of them. Unfortunately, you haven’t had that exclusivity chat yet, and you think, “there’s no way this person will settle for a loser like me.” Today, we continue our journey of reimagining Robert Schumann’s Frauenliebe und –leben with the second song in the cycle, “Er, der Herrlichste von allen,” which translates as “he, the most wonderful of all.”
When I auditioned for graduate schools, the typical university required recordings of songs in English, Italian, German, and French, in addition to an aria in any language. Since I was preparing this entire song cycle for my senior recital, the obvious choice was to choose one of the songs from Frauenliebe und –leben as my German piece. I picked this one.
I chose this song at the time because my hand-boiling, exhale card-holding pianist suggested it, and I unquestioningly followed everything he said. I remember deciding to start with this song for my audition at Rice University instead of one of Cherubino’s arias from Le nozze di Figaro. (My transition from fake mezzo-soprano to shoddy soprano is a discussion for another time, but go ahead and put a pin in that.) I began the piece, and all I could think about was how bad I sounded, how much better everybody else was than me, and how I didn’t deserve to be there. I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Apparently, the panel agreed– I didn’t get in. I wish I could go back and tell Victoria to screw the singing and get the unadulterated adoration and joy of the lyrics across, and I could solidify my technique later. I’m still learning that lesson.
Revisiting this piece has set my brain on fire. It is exhilarating and heartbreaking; I love the aesthetic little pianistic turns in the vocal line and the energetic accompaniment. The short postlude neatly ties a pretty bow on the dreaminess of our Frauenbild’s devotion. Her words are a declamation of what she believes to be unrequited love. As I listened to this piece, I thought, “I can’t wait to have my voice back so I can sing this.” I didn’t fully comprehend this song a few years ago. I postulate that my insecurities, underdeveloped technique, and lack of mature artistry prevented me from interpreting these songs with the nuance and enthusiasm they deserve. I am itching to give them another go.
All that to say– this musical diary entry is more than the average love letter. Let’s take a peek at the translation.
Had I been paying closer attention, my insecure, young self could have channeled our narrator’s emotions into my performance. Like the Frauenbild, I didn’t feel like I was good enough– she didn’t deserve her perfect man, and I didn’t meet the standards for an academic institution.
The idea of a man writing about a woman who didn’t feel she was enough for an allegedly perfect man doesn’t sit right with me. I have to remember when Chamisso and Schumann wrote these poems and later songs– in the 1800s, women were still considered subservient to men. God first, husband second, then children, wife last of all. A woman’s husband is closer to God than she is. Stay obedient; Eve was the one who ate the apple, and women throughout history must continue to pay. Women exist to pump out babies until they die in childbirth–can you tell I’ve been watching House of the Dragon? Thanks to the advent of education, medical advances, and birth control, women worldwide have diversified their purpose beyond serving only the interests of men.
But boy, oh boy, these cultural norms are hard to overcome. Women color their hair, starve their bodies, paint their faces, cultivate the perfect wardrobe, remove unwanted body hair, inject Botox, and undergo plastic surgery in an effort to obtain an unattainable beauty standard. It signals that we are more beautiful and, therefore, superior to the other women around us and palatable to men. Sure, a woman can be intelligent, hardworking, funny, and brave, but men will only acknowledge those traits in a pretty package. It’s social currency. A man can look like a stubbed toe and be the most successful person in the world.
So what’s our Frauenbild turned protagonist to do? Certainly, she’s not worshipping this modern man, but she must reckon with her insecurities. I imagine this man is also grappling with his shortcomings; we just don’t get to hear that in the original poetry. We all want to be the best version of ourselves for the person we love.
“He’s too good for me,” I sigh as I pull on mismatched socks and my tan, heeled boots. He’s so thoughtful when I can be so loud. I watch his delicate mouth as he speaks; his eyes light up–he has a fiery mind and strong optimism. I have a sharp tongue and snort when I laugh.
He speaks. I’m not listening. His eyes perfectly match his wrinkly button-down shirt–my eyes aren’t that blue; they’re more of a bluish-green. Not so striking. How are his eyes so blue? I wonder if his parents have blue eyes. I wonder if I’ll ever meet them.
I shift my focus to the cellulite on my arms, the size of my nose, the softness of my stomach. Will he be disappointed? Does he wish I was thinner, prettier, quieter? I’m still trying to ignore what makes me frown in the mirror. Body neutrality, or whatever.
Crap, he can tell I’m not listening. Nod. Smile. Laugh. No, don’t do that; he’s not funny. He’s cute when he’s trying to be funny, though.
Yeah, he’ll leave for someone hotter, more intelligent, more successful. Better. His eyes probably light up for everyone; his hand gently touching mine isn’t unique.
Love is such a scam.