Feminist Fridays: “Dein blaues Auge” by Johannes Brahms
This post belongs to the series originally called “Frauenbild Fridays.” For the original post, click here.
I’m gearing up to begin a more extensive series, but I’ll do one more single song musing before I dive into our next cycle.
Dein blaues Auge, which translates to “Your blue eyes,” is an iconic art song by Johannes Brahms with poetry by Klaus Groth. I was first made aware of Brahms’ existence with this PSA advocating for arts education in schools:
Shoutout to my high school choir director for that one.
Well, our guy Robert Schumann composed those pieces for his wife. If you think back to my introduction of Frauenliebe, I mentioned that he was married to a notoriously fabulous pianist, Clara Schumann. Of course, she never went on to have the prolific performing career and compositional recognition she deserved because she needed to pump out babies and be a good wife, as was the expectation for the time. We could’ve heard more of her compositions if she had only been born 200 years later, but she still managed to write some beautiful music.
It’s difficult to overstate Clara’s incredible contribution to classical music. She is regarded to this day as one of the best concert pianists of all time, with a career spanning over 60 years. Robert died 30 years before her, and she continued to raise eight children while performing. Most of her compositional output occurred before she had children, which appeared to be a conscious choice. Bogged down by gender conventions of the time, Clara was unsure of whether it would be appropriate for women to compose music, despite Robert’s encouragement. Clara didn’t receive the musical recognition she deserved until the last couple of decades when a desire to highlight female composers became more mainstream.
However, I’m not talking exclusively about Clara today– we’ll get to her songs soon enough. I’m talking about Johannes Brahms’ puppy dog love for his buddy’s wife, specifically, the song Dein blaues Auge.
The validity of the love triangle rumor is admittedly up in the air. Still, it remains common “knowledge” in the classical music community that Clara and Brahms were more than just friends. Despite Brahms’ apparent longing for Clara, their love was never meant to be, even though Robert died in 1856. They remained friends but not lovers. Brahms never married. A romantic type might guess this was because he spent his life pining for Clara, but perhaps he just enjoyed a bachelor’s lifestyle. We will never know.
Clara only writes that she loves Brahms in her correspondence once, whereas Brahms declares his love for Clara dozens of times. If I had to postulate, and you know I love to make wild guesses, she once truly loved the man she married, Robert Schumann. He was a brilliant young student of her father’s. However, he never respected her as an artist and intellectual the way Brahms did. After Robert’s death, she craved a relationship with a like-minded individual over a romantic affair.
I’m not a Schumann or Brahms scholar, and I will never know. I love smutty romance novels, though, so I think I’m on the right track.
Back to Dein blaues Auge. Did Clara Schumann have blue eyes?
After doing a bit of digging, or as conspiracy theorists might say, “my own research,” I can honestly say I’m not sure. In a painting of Clara from childhood, she appears to have bright blue eyes:
However, in this painting of Clara in her adulthood, her eyes are more hazel or brown. Agh, the 1800s. I don’t know if Clara would’ve been a selfie gal if she lived today, but at least we’d have a few more photos from which we could deduce her eye color. Regardless, I’m choosing to believe this song is about Clara– either as an obvious nod to her eye color or an attempt to disguise the true recipient of Brahms’ ardor. It doesn’t matter if I’m right or not– isn’t that the beauty of art? There isn’t an answer.
Dein blaues Auge was published in 1873 as the eighth song in Brahms’ 8 Lieder und Gesänge, Op.59, No.8. This publication is not considered a song cycle, unlike Frauenliebe und –leben because there isn’t a compositional or poetic link between all eight of them. Unlike a song cycle, it’s acceptable and common to mix and match which songs are performed or recorded, although they can be programmed in full.
Even in English, the poetry paints such an illustrative portrait of a lover’s eyes, providing the viewer a window into her soul, or at least that’s what he sees. It makes me sad to think of Brahms as yearning for unrequited love, but I am fascinated by Clara’s rebuffing of his advances. She had better things to do than Brahms, I guess. What’s behind Clara’s eyes? Is it Johannes Brahms’ health restored?
I think not. Scholars have analyzed the Brahms/Clara letters to death, but ultimately, there wasn’t anything there. Brahms ardently pined for Clara’s love for decades through letters, and she only said she loved him once. She loved him like she would a son. There’s something about the romanticism of getting lost in someone’s eyes, but I am more interested in the stoicism of not caring. Clara had other things to worry about besides Brahms’ letters, like raising an army of kids, insulting Liszt, and playing the piano in whatever free time was left. I admire her.
What if men cared more about preventing unwanted pregnancies?
I know it’s a Sunday, but Feminist Fridays are BACK! We’re digging into one of my favorites today with Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel), a wild ride worthy of aria status, using the famous Goethe text, Faust.
Let’s back up and talk about our guy Franz Schubert (1797-1828). He wrote around 600 vocal works, primarily lieder (art songs) in his short life, in addition to symphonies, sacred music, operas, and piano and chamber work. He famously died officially of typhoid fever in 1828, but many scholars postulate he died of syphilis. I’m not sure why this is so scandalous; many people died of syphilis back in the day. No, seriously. Everybody was dying of syphilis, and it was gnarly. Thank goodness for penicillin, am I right?
Schubert made the most of his short time on earth by becoming one of the most prolific German art song composers of all time. The sheer number of works he composed over a few years is truly astounding, and we can thank him in many ways for ushering in a new era of compositional style. Beethoven reportedly was impressed!
Gretchen am Spinnrade is perhaps Schubert’s most iconic piece for soprano. Although it is an art song, the intensity, storyline, and relationship between voice and piano evoke the dramatic sensibility of an operatic aria. He wrote the song at the tender age of 16, further proof of his compositional genius.
Let’s talk about the story of Faust for a minute. Although the character of Faust has been around since the 1500s, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play is one of the most consequential and well-known interpretations. In two parts, Goethe tells the story of a medieval man who sells his soul to the devil.
But I don’t really care about Faust– I care about the beautiful young woman, Gretchen (or Margaret, the two names are used interchangeably), whom he seduces and impregnates.
She accidentally kills her mom with a sleeping potion meant to keep her unaware of Faust’s visit, her brother condemns Faust, who kills him with the devil’s help, and Gretchen drowns her baby. Gretchen is then imprisoned for murdering her child, and although Faust attempts to free her with the devil’s help, she refuses. Ultimately, she is pardoned by God as she dies.
Woof. Romanticism, man.
This song is set before all of the tragedy unfolds. Gretchen has met Faust, and his charms consume her. She sits restlessly at her spinning wheel, heard in the piano accompaniment, as she obsesses over her love for Faust. They haven’t had sex yet, but her longing for him builds in the vocal line as the piano accompaniment imitates her increasing inability to focus on her work.
Like many women before her, having sex with a man was the worst choice Gretchen could have ever made. The implication of this choice was unfairly 100% on her. I finished a fabulous book, Ejaculate Responsibly: A Whole New Way to Think About Abortion, by Gabrielle Blair, while sipping a delicious chai at a coffee shop in Ames, Iowa, last Sunday. It’s a short read but supremely validating and angering all at once.
Blair was able to clearly articulate a frustration of mine in the conversation surrounding unwanted pregnancy and abortion: 100% of unwanted pregnancies are caused by irresponsible ejaculation, and yet, women bear most or all of the responsibility of preventing unwanted pregnancies.
Through 28 straightforward arguments, Blair attempts to shift the abortion issue away from legislating women’s bodies and toward a focus on equalizing the playing field of responsibility in preventing unwanted pregnancies. Assuming both parties are fertile, women are fertile for approximately 24 hours per month, whereas men can impregnate a woman 24/7, 365 days per year. Despite this, women account for 90% of the birth control market and face stigmas surrounding prioritizing men’s comfort and pleasure over pregnancy prevention.
In Gounod’s opera, Faust, the devil had a hand in helping Faust seduce Gretchen, which could be a commentary on how tempting it is to sin, or it could be a way of absolving Gretchen of her actions. Regardless, love makes people do stupid things, like getting knocked up and accidentally killing their mom with a sleeping potion. Right?
In my mind, Gretchen resembles Ophelia– a tragic character swept up in the problems of and mistreatment by men, only to die, tortured, and alone. She fits nicely into a literary trope of helpless women who become victims at the hands of the men who were supposed to love them. At least Hamlet also dies– In Goethe’s version of Faust, the hero goes on to have an entire part two without mentioning how he ruined Gretchen’s life and caused her demise. At least she got to go to heaven. Yes?
My hope for a modern Gretchen is that she could fall in love and have sex with a man who understands that preventing unwanted pregnancies falls on both parties. By taking control of her sexuality, our modern Gretchen can restlessly daydream at her spinning wheel without worrying about a life-upending change. It makes for a far less dramatic story– distinctly less darkly romantic but much more empowering.
The devil can still condemn Faust to eternal damnation, though– he’s the worst.
This post belongs to a series formerly known as “Frauenbild Fridays.” Click here to see the original post.
Well, fellow feminists, we’ve come to the end of our first song cycle, Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben. Since this is a piece about a woman’s life and love, we can assume the last song features our protagonist on her deathbed, reflecting on a life well lived with her family and fulfilling career in the rearview mirror.
Wait, we forgot something– a woman’s life in this period wasn’t hers!
The last piece in Frauenliebe, “Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan,”translates to “now you have caused me my first pain,” and refers to the death of our protagonist’s husband. Of course! It’s not her death that ends her life but rather her husband’s. We should have known.
At first glance, the lyrics remind me of the now defunct Hindu practice of Sati, also known as “widow burning,” where some women would burn themselves alive on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands, either willingly or unwillingly. In Frauenliebe und -leben, our protagonist metaphorically resigns herself to death as her husband’s body lies in front of her. It is a dark and macabre image.
I adopt a critical eye immediately, so I’d like to take a step back and assess two things before I get all cynical. First, Chamisso wrote these poems in the aftermath of the Sturm und Drang era, a precursor to the Romantic period translating to “storm and stress.” Alongside the stereotypical themes of the time, such as nature and romantic love, the romanticization of death and strong, negative emotion also pervaded literature, art, and music.
It makes sense that folks of the 1800s were obsessed with death and dying. 1840 was a time in which death was much more normalized than it is in our culture equipped with modern medicine. In the 1800s, the global average of childhood deaths was a whopping 43.3%. Nearly half of all kids died before they even reached adulthood! Of course, it wasn’t smooth sailing once the surviving children reached adulthood– the average lifespan in the 1800s hovered between 30-40 years of age. Next time I feel like I haven’t accomplished enough, I’ll just remember that if I had lived two hundred years ago, I’d probably be dead by now!
The second factor I’d like to assess is a little squishier: love. When someone close to us dies, a tiny part of us also dies because we are part of each other. Through seven songs, we discovered our protagonist’s intense love for her partner and expanded upon her experience to center herself rather than her husband.
My grandma died nearly seven years ago, leaving behind a little gap in my heart. A grandparent is often the first acute death young people experience, and it was difficult to cope when my grandma died. I’m fortunate that those closest to me have lived long lives thus far, so I haven’t experienced the pain of losing a parent, sibling, best friend, or significant other. However, I can still imagine our Frauenbild doesn’t know how to go on without her closest confidant– it was hard enough for me to reckon with my grandmother’s death.
In short, I think Frauenbild’s grief is warranted, even if her outlook is antiquated and colored by the views of men at the time.
Let’s allow the lyrics to speak for themselves for a moment.
The poetry in this piece evokes the acute pain of loss. Even in the translation, we can feel the burden of grief our protagonist is grappling with. The broken iteration of Seit ich ihn gesehen as a postlude is quintessentially Schumann and makes me cry, I won’t deny it. The piece is a beautiful end to the cycle, but not to this woman’s story.
Although her husband is dead, I want to hear an epilogue where she continues to grow alongside her grandchildren. I want to read her memoir recounting her travels with friends. I want our protagonist to volunteer at a hospital or mentor young colleagues in her field. I want her to go on living.
The beauty of existing as a 21st-century American woman is finally becoming the main character in our own stories. For so long, we lived in service to God and husband. We existed only to produce more people, which is a powerful job but limiting when we see all the options available for men.
I savor my worth as a human not being tied to whether or not I’m beautiful, married, or a mother. My value doesn’t lie in producing sons who can go on to do something great; I can be something great myself. Women have only experienced this power in the mainstream sense for a generation. I won’t take it for granted and I won’t let anyone take it away from me.
The death of our Frauenbild’s husband may have been the end of her story, but it’s not the end of our modern twist. After my grandpa died in 1999, my grandma went on to retire as the English department chair at Le Sueur High School, travel around Europe with her friends, and remain an integral part of my childhood. I’m sure she missed my grandpa deeply, but I only remember her as a sharp-witted, independent woman who lived and loved joyously. Although the grief of losing a loved one leaves a hole that no one can fill, our protagonist’s life will continue because it is her own, just like my grandma’s.
Thank goodness– I can’t imagine being a sidekick in my own story.
This piece belongs to a series in which I analyze Taylor Swift’s albums through the feminist lens leading up to the Eras Tour. For the first essay in the series on “Speak Now,” click here.
Greetings, fellow Swifties! The results of my Instagram poll are in: it’s time to take a deep dive into Taylor’s fifth studio album, 1989. Released in October 2014, this album, produced by Big Machine Records, marked Taylor Swift’s official move away from country music and complete immersion into the pop genre.
This album pulses with bangers, marked by six incredibly successful singles regularly played on the radio to this day. The album’s lead single, “Shake It Off” is considered to be her most successful single of all time. Although in the past I have written this single off as lyrically weak and irritating, upon closer examination, the maturity expressed in Swift’s takedown of her critics is far more nuanced than that of “Mean” in Speak Now. In essence, “Shake It Off” is the album’s crux: Taylor Swift announced to the world with 1989 that she was a grown-up pop icon and no one could take her down.
Numerous songs on 1989 are dripping with #girlboss energy. Now considered a derogatory term, “girl boss energy” rose to prominence in the mid-2010s and refers to women who are self-made, successful businesswomen acting as their own bosses. Often, critics chastise these women for chasing success at the expense of others, all while spitting out quips such as “Boss Babe!”, “Get it, girl!” or “Yassss queen!” As late as 2022, Taylor Swift is closely associated with the “girlboss” stereotype in “Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss.”
In my last album analysis, I concluded that although Speak Now embodied certain feminist ideals, criticism that she perpetuated negative feminine stereotypes, such as victimizing oneself and focusing only on boys, was well-founded. What I’m curious to unravel in 1989 is whether or not Taylor Swift warranted the dialogue surrounding her as a cringe-inducing “girlboss” during this time of grave unrest and turmoil in her public image.
Before we begin, let’s form a working definition of white feminism. Typically used as a derogatory term, white feminism refers to the stereotypical feminist movement that applies to cisgender, heterosexual, non-disabled, often beautiful women that neglects women of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, or those with disabilities. The media heavily criticized Swift during the mid-2010s for perpetuating this stereotype as conversations surrounding intersectionality in feminism became more prominent.
1989 dropped during the fall of my senior year of college, just after I had spent a summer in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, performing with College Light Opera Company. I had just changed my major to vocal performance, and I still consider that one of my life’s most formative and enjoyable summers. Like Taylor, there was a boy I was into, but it wouldn’t work out for one reason or another. Transitioning back to academic life when I had spent all summer really “doing the thing” was incredibly difficult. I also didn’t know how to become a performer or what to do next, I didn’t feel seen or appreciated at school, and I felt a little lost. Fortunately, Taylor Swift’s fifth studio album came just in time to lift me out of my funk and make me feel “finally clean.” That’s the power of her songwriting and the best reason to embark on this morning’s journey.
For each song, I’ll provide my favorite lyrics, a short analysis through a feminist lens, and then give a feminism score. The rankings are simply by level of enjoyment.
16. You Are In Love
Favorite Lyric: “And you understand now why they lost their minds and fought the wars/And why I’ve spent my whole life tryin’ to put it into words”
There’s some carefully crafted lyricism in here. Still, overall it doesn’t give me anything I didn’t already get from “This Love” or “Wildest Dreams.”
Feminist Score: B because it paints a realistic romance rather than a fairytale for which Taylor had become known.
15. Shake It Off
Favorite Lyric: “It’s like I got this music in my mind/Sayin’ it’s gonna be alright”
Listen, I don’t like this song. Maybe I’m not a real Swiftie, but I’ve always found this song lyrically weak and pervasively irritating. However, upon analyzing her music through a feminist lens, this piece is critical in illustrating her transformation from a fragile young country star to a powerfully intelligent businesswoman.
Feminist Score: A. Sure, it’s a piece co-opted by girl bosses everywhere to justify rude behavior and hustle culture, but it’s an enormously transformative and inspiring piece to independent achievers everywhere.
14. How You Get The Girl
Favorite Lyric: “Remind her how it used to be, be/Yeah, with pictures in frames of kisses on cheeks, cheeks”
This song is perplexing. It’s the only song on the album I could criticize as “filler.” However, I’m about digging deep, so I’ll do my best. This song boils down to a nonsensical list of things to do to get a girl that overall feels manipulative and derivative. However, it’s a sick beat, as Taylor might say.
Feminist Score: F. Men, if you go through a breakup with a woman, the appropriate response is to not show up at her door unannounced and refuse to leave until she breaks down and gets back together with you. Major yikes.
13. I Know Places
Favorite lyric: “Something happens when everybody finds out/See the vultures circling, dark clouds”
This piece is interesting because it forces the listener to empathize with two highly successful celebrities who just want to be typical together. Still, their relationship isn’t strong enough to withstand the constant media attention. It’s neither of their faults that their relationship crumbled (RIP Taylor and Harry) but rather the intense scrutiny and pressure they constantly find themselves under. And she manages to make something so sad, so boppy once again!
Feminist Score: B. She is taking control, and they appear equally unequipped to sail the waters of their tumultuous relationship, but there aren’t necessarily any themes of feminism outwardly portrayed here.
12. I Wish You Would
Favorite Lyric: “We’re a crooked love/In a straight line down”
A quick note on this lyric- I always thought this lyric was “we’re a crooked love in a street lying down,” which makes absolutely zero sense, but late at night at College Light Opera Company in 2014, my fellow young artists and I would walk down to the beach and lay in the road and look up at the stars since there were never any cars. It always makes me smile.
Ok, feminism. I mean…meh? Just once, I’d like Taylor to drive the dang car herself (maybe she caught on to this– “and he was tossing me the car keys, fuck the patriarchy, keychain on the ground,” anyone?), and it seems to be a metaphor for her not being in the driver’s seat of her relationships. This song is reminiscent of Speak Now themes from Taylor.
Feminist Score: C? I guess?
Favorite Lyric: “Didn’t you flash your green eyes at me?/Haven’t you heard what becomes of curious minds?”
I have a definite soft spot for this bonus track. Apparent allusions to Alice in Wonderland aside, this piece romanticizes a toxic relationship in which the narrator’s man behaves in a manipulative and demeaning way. Yikes.
Feminist Score: D, only because I might be overreacting. What do you think?
Favorite Lyric: “’Cause you got that James Dean daydream look in your eye/And I got that red lip classic thing that you like”
Remember when Taylor Swift dated Harry Styles? It truly feels like a lifetime ago. We’re back in her “I’m sitting in the passenger’s seat, and you’re driving, and it’s hot. I’m pretty with my red lipstick on, isn’t this the American Dream” vibes of earlier albums but with a synth-pop beat.
Feminist Score: C. It’s neither empowering nor derogatory, and it’s a jam.
9. Blank Space
Favorite Lyric: “Boys only want love if it’s torture/Don’t say I didn’t, say I didn’t warn ya”
This song might as well be the #girlboss anthem. I’ll admit that I grew tired of this song after hearing it in every restaurant, mall, elevator, bar, and shop on the planet for years on end, but after revisiting it, nearly every line is a zinger. Like Shake It Off, Taylor playfully and confidently derides her critics, with every line encompassing a sick burn. The song embodies shallow feminism typical of the mid-2010s but is powerful nonetheless. If the media thinks Taylor Swift is a boy-crazy maneater who only dates men to later spit them out for material, then that’s what she’ll give them.
Feminist Score: A-, only because the #girlboss energy is a little intense and cringe, and I saw one too many women caption an Instagram post with “cause darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream” in 2015.
8. Welcome to New York
Favorite Lyric: “Walkin’ through a crowd, the village is aglow/Kaleidoscope of loud heartbeats under coats”
What an album opener. Close your eyes and imagine the first time you heard this song and how it made you feel. I once romanticized the idea of living in New York. Although that dream has passed me, the excitement of landing at LaGuardia Airport while blasting this song through my earbuds will never leave me. She is independent, lighthearted, and dancing. There is no boy in sight. This song always rang of individuality and confidence to me, and what is a #girlboss without exuberant enthusiasm?
Feminist Score: A. Why not? It makes me, a woman, feel unstoppable.
7. All You Had to Do Was Stay
Favorite lyric: “People like you always want back the love they gave away/And people like me wanna believe you when you say you’ve changed”
Well, she gave up her power here, but at the same time, she’s standing up for herself and saying hey no you left me good sir and I’m not just going to come running back to you. Either way, it is a complete jam and is overlooked as one of the best songs on the album.
Feminist Score: C+. Poor Taylor got broken up with again, but she’s not moping about it. Like a typical #girlboss, she’s an independent woman who doesn’t need a man!
6. This Love
Favorite Lyric: “Your smile, my ghost/I fell to my knees”
I can’t imagine a better sequel to “Last Kiss” than this incredible piece of raw emotional vulnerability. Folks are critical of Taylor’s lyrics that imply that she isn’t in control of her relationships and remains under the control of her partner. Although “currents swept you out again” could be considered such a lyric, the portrait of a relationship coming to a boiling point is effective and effervescent. She manages to evoke action alongside reminiscence, romanticizing the past while remaining concrete. Feminist? Not sure. Beautiful? Absolutely.
Feminist Score: C, I guess.
5. Out of the Woods
Favorite lyric: “Remember when we couldn’t take the heat?/I walked out, I said “I’m setting you free”
This song is such a vibe. The echoing, chaotic synthesizer evokes a sense of anxiety that Swift says defines the album. The lyrics honestly and openly paint the picture of a dissatisfying and crumbling relationship. For critics who claim Taylor consistently portrays herself as the victim, this song is a foray from her stereotype in which she shares in the blame for the dissolution of the relationship. Owning up to one’s shortcomings without submitting to one’s partner or allowing oneself to be gaslit is profoundly feminist.
Feminist Score: B. She’s waiting for the guy to potentially save or end the relationship, but the nuance of a more mature relationship sets this transformative album apart from previous ones.
Favorite Lyric: “The drought was the very worst/When the flowers that we’d grown together died of thirst”
Feminist Score: A. The arc of this album, from manipulative heartbreaker to healed icon, deserves a chef’s kiss.
3. Wildest Dreams
Favorite Lyric: “You’ll see me in hindsight/Tangled up with you all night/Burning it down”
Man, Taylor really couldn’t catch a break during this era- remember the colonialism controversy surrounding this music video? I’ll admit it to all of you– I ugly cried so many times thinking about a boy who had fully moved on from our brief relationship while listening to this song. If that’s not peak Taylor Swift, then I don’t know what is.
Maybe it’s the steady synth-pop beat or the assuredness in her demands, but this piece holds a quiet power in heartbreak that is different from her past breakup songs.It’s another “Last Kiss”style song of 1989, but she revels in its beauty instead of wallowing in her sadness. Also– is this the first time Taylor wrote overtly sexual lyrics? I’m into it. Own your sexuality!
Feminist Score: A- because for a breakup song, she handles herself pretty well and doesn’t seem to define herself by the end of this relationship.
2. Bad Blood
Favorite Lyric: “Band-aids don’t fix bullet holes/You say sorry just for show/If you live like that, you live with ghosts”
Best lyric on the WHOLE ALBUM RIGHT HERE! Wow. The music video for this piece sparked the white feminism conversation. Swift cast all her beautiful, white model friends in this music video aimed at a feud between Taylor and Katy Perry (they’ve since made up!). The sentiment of this piece is where girl boss feminism sours. In stepping on people to attain perceived success, girl boss sentiment allows for a vindictive, ruthless attitude wrapped in a hot pink feminist bow. You go, girl! Gaining power or success at the expense of other women or important relationships is not feminist. To me, this song represented the height of #girlboss energy and contributed to its fall. Regardless, it is a total bop, and I once blew out a speaker in my car listening to this song.
Feminist Score: B, because standing up for yourself is cool, but tearing down others is not.
Favorite Lyric: “We cry tears of mascara in the bathroom/Honey, life is just a classroom”
Those of you who have kept up with my rankings for years know this is in my top three favorite Taylor Swift songs, period. It is everything to me. I think of “cause baby, I could build a castle out of all the bricks they threw at me” every time I get a rejection email. Singers are constantly singing “heartbreak as our national anthem.” The pop beat is infectious, and the sentiment exudes the poppy, optimistic flavor fueling fans of this era through power and independence. Is it feminist? In the shallow, mid-2010s way, I think it fits the bill.
Feminist Score: A.
The specific strain of feminism portrayed in 1989 as an album and Taylor Swift’s life at large at the time of its release is a fascinating cultural phenomenon. Swift is such a massive star that her actions, attitudes, and music itself can shift the way an entire generation of fans view themselves and choose to behave.
When 1989 dropped in 2014, Taylor Swift skyrocketed to the world’s leading pop icon, leaving her country roots behind. She was as unstoppable and admirable as the girl boss movement she embodied. However, over a year and a record-breaking world tour, Taylor Swift fell from pop’s most prominent darling to a vile, manipulative monster vilified by the media. Similarly, women who embarked on a journey of self-made, peppy entrepreneurship quickly went from feminist icons to vapid, mockable frauds who bore the brunt of male-dominated criticism.
Is feminism worth it when it only makes space for women who are cisgender, heterosexual, white, and beautiful? With discussions surrounding intersectionality in feminism in recent years, the conclusion should be that feminism isn’t serving us as a culture unless it includes all female-identifying humans and includes discussions of race, sexuality, beauty standards, and disability.
I don’t blame Taylor Swift for getting caught up in this rhetoric. She has since changed her ways, and her music’s messages have evolved as culture’s discussion of feminism advances. In a vital way, her music serves as a marker for the advancement of social and cultural norms.
#Girlboss energy may be declining, but 1989 will live on as a prime example of the cultural movement and continue to deserve the label as one of the best pop albums of all time. With its release, Taylor Swift proved she was truly unstoppable.
Album Feminist Score: B. Female empowerment bogged down by the girl boss movement and the misfortune of embodying the stereotype of a white feminist.
Which album should I analyze next? Let me know in the comments!
Motherhood is no longer the all-consuming, defining feature of modern women.
This post belongs to a series formerly known as “Frauenbild Fridays”, where I analyze German art song through a contemporary feminist lens. Click here to see the original post.
I have a lot to say about An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust, the seventh song in Frauenliebe und -leben, but before I do, I want to be cautious. I am not a mother, and I have never been pregnant. My feelings about having children and watching people I know give birth to babies are complicated by my views on womanhood and resisting the bonds with which biology and culture have chained us.
Technically, this is the only song in Frauenliebe und -leben that isn’t about a man. It’s about the baby our protagonist produces with her man and how she hadn’t felt joy until she had a child. Honestly, I have heard that it’s an experience unlike any other from both mothers and fathers, so I’m not going to discount that, I swear.
Luckily, we live in a country and time where most women have the freedom to choose whatever path they like, regardless of whether or not having children is involved.
That being said, there is still a cultural stigma against being a childless woman.
Here’s a list of questions and comments young men are simply not receiving:
When are you getting married?
Are you going to start having kids soon?
What do you mean you don’t want kids? I’m sure that will change as you get older.
Don’t forget the judgments if you are pregnant:
You’re breastfeeding, right?
What type of birth are you doing?
You’re only supposed to gain a certain amount of weight.
It’s not all doom and gloom today– childbirth would have been much more dangerous for our dear Frauenbild in 1840. According to a study published by the National Institute of Health in London, between 1700 and 1935, approximately 5-29 per 1,000 women died in childbirth. This number was considerably higher in women unassisted by medical professionals. If we convert this back into our modern measurement, before the advent of modern healthcare, anywhere from 500 to 2900 women per 100,000 live births were dying in childbirth in London. Never mind that childrearing was the woman’s sole responsibility and birth control wasn’t an option– women just kept popping out babies until menopause or dying in childbirth. No thanks. Then, women had the heartbreaking experience of watching their kids die from a childhood illness. Thanks to vaccines, we no longer need to worry about this unless people keep neglecting to vaccinate their children.
Childbirth in developing nations continues to endanger women. According to the World Health Organization, “Women in less developed countries have, on average, many more pregnancies than women in developed countries, and their lifetime risk of death due to pregnancy is higher. A woman’s lifetime risk of maternal death is the probability that a 15-year-old woman will eventually die from a maternal cause. In high-income countries, this is 1 in 5400, versus 1 in 45 in low-income countries.”1
I applaud and respect women who choose to embark on the fabulous journey of motherhood and hope to be among you someday. However, we need to acknowledge that pregnancy is inherently complex and dangerous and should only be undertaken at the desire of the pregnant person in question.
I’m grateful that motherhood isn’t the all-consuming, defining feature of modern women. It is no longer a woman’s duty to birth babies, but rather a privilege and choice.
The aspect I appreciate most about this piece is its sheer, unadulterated joy. What makes my eyes roll toward the back of my head is the sentiment that motherhood is the only feeling that elicits such joy in women. Maybe if a female poet had written the piece, I would feel differently, but the idea that men were doing women a favor by occupying them with children is an old-fashioned view that I am glad has mostly gone by the wayside.
I find intense happiness when I get a coveted gig for which I auditioned. Elation rushes over my body when I receive positive feedback regarding my writing. I experience a boost in serotonin when friends laugh at my jokes or when my boyfriend tells me how much he loves me. Adrenaline floods through me at the top of a roller coaster and during the high note of a showstopping aria onstage. Love radiates through me as I hold a difficult yoga pose or taste delicious flavors prepared just for me. Joy comes to me in all places and times if I allow it to enter my life.
Many of my friends have started having babies. Meanwhile, I struggle with the inherent unfairness of women who want satisfaction both in career and family because women still bear the brunt of domestic duty, even in the healthiest relationships. Like Liz Lemon, many contemporary women want to “have it all.”
I want to enjoy what I have without expectation. That’s my hope for our Frauenbild and all of us.
Joy is breaking out into song and bathing in the applause. It’s the delight of positive feedback and laughter from a joke. Joy comes to me at the top of a roller coaster, and when I’m alone with the person I love. Happiness is a baby’s laugh or a satisfying workout. It finds me when the smells of my cooking fill the kitchen and when I’m sipping a cup of coffee. Joy is everywhere, it is me, and it is you. I live in happiness as a woman without expectations.
Honestly, I’ve been dreading this one a little because there’s no way around it– this song is about sex, and my mom and all of her friends read this blog. It’s also about sex in a very pre-sexual revolution sort of light– intimacy leads to babies, this is the only function of sexual relations, and everything else is SIN, I TELL YOU!! SIN!!!! Mom and friends, I’m sorry.
Even in 1840, we know people had sex outside of marriage. In fact, young men were encouraged to “sow their wild oats,” so to speak, with prostitutes and the like, while women were expected to know absolutely nothing about sex and needed teaching from their husbands. Haven’t you all watched Bridgerton? The shame of losing one’s virginity and the burden of unplanned pregnancy has always fallen on the woman, and that hasn’t gone away. A quote from The Breakfast Club comes to mind regarding virginity as a woman: “If you say you haven’t, you’re a prude. If you say you have, you’re a slut. It’s a trap.” Remember in my introduction to Frauenbild Fridays when I mentioned the “Madonna/Whore Complex”? People love to shame other people about sex, especially women and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Most people know Margaret Atwood for her novel turned TV show, The Handmaid’s Tale. It was my favorite book I studied in high school, and it inspired me to read all of Atwood’s work I could get my hands on. Most of her writing is centered around dystopic future universes dripping with seething commentary on our current world. However, she wrote a historical novel in 1996, Alias Grace. It’s set around the time our song cycle was composed. One of the most riveting and angering plotlines is a maid in the tale engaging in a romance with a son of the family she works for, who gets her pregnant. He claims she got knocked up by somebody else and refuses to acknowledge the child. Knowing she will lose her well-paying servant position and reputation, the maid attempts to abort the fetus. She bleeds out on her bed and dies. So yeah, that’s what happened in 1840 when a woman had a Süsser Freund encounter–or perhaps 2040 if we keep eliminating reproductive rights.
Sexuality is a controversial topic these days. Many people in the United States believe that unless you’re attempting to conceive a child, any sexual act is unholy and their job to punish. Right-wing commentators unleash a vendetta upon the LGBTQ+ community daily. Reproductive rights diminish around the country. A small group of people’s desire to control American citizens’ private lives is disgusting, unacceptable, and, unfortunately, historically consistent. When will we learn?
Intimacy is just that– it’s intimate. It’s a shared moment between two (or more, you do you) people that is no one else’s business. Intimacy is the glistening glue holding this piece together. When I hear this song performed well, it’s almost as if I’m uncomfortable invading this private moment between two people. Their hopes, dreams, and wants are between just the two of them.
This song is just so beautiful. From personal experience, it’s also wicked hard to sing– it’s incredibly exposed and requires precision equal to that of a tightrope walker. The understated accompaniment, paired with the impossibly long vocal lines, paints an atmosphere of sensuality and privacy from the first chord. As the piano line animates in the middle section, the vocalist gains energy and courage, and the relaxation back into calming bliss is a powerful musical experience.
I’m so happy that our Frauenbild can practice vulnerability and experience safety and security with a partner she loves. I delight in the fact that she was married at a time when falling pregnant out of wedlock was life-threatening. I’m thrilled that she experienced a positive sexual awakening. Everyone deserves that, and not everyone is safe to love who they want to love right now or even how they want to love.
God called on his people to “love thy neighbor.” Let’s do that.
My sister got married in May of 2021, during an exhilarating time when most people recently became vaccinated for COVID-19 and began crawling out of their shells. People were ready to attend a wedding and have a great time. We all wanted the day to be perfect for my sister, an angel baby of wonder and beauty, who deserved the best day ever.
The bridal party got ready at my parents’ house, and everybody appreciated how relaxed it was. I did Kayla’s makeup in the bathroom, where I spent every morning obsessing over my appearance for fifteen years. My mom laid out a spread of sandwiches and pasta salads on the coffee table purchased years ago. Dad and I spied on the couple’s first look from the bedroom window, gazing out into the greenery and marsh of the backyard. It all felt so familiar, and yet there was a buzziness surrounding every aspect of the morning. Our song for today, written nearly two hundred years ago, captures that same anticipatory emotional state.
When I look back on my sister’s wedding day, I think about everyone in the bridal party sitting cross-legged in our sweatpants on the living room floor, eating lunch, and cracking jokes like it was a typical day. We excitedly awaited my brother-in-law’s arrival, enjoyed the casual, candid photos, and fastened all of the buttons, of which there were many, on my sister’s beautiful ballgown-style wedding dress. That was probably my favorite part of the entire day– when I felt my sister’s unusually expectant energy resonate through such a familiar space. She was all smiles, a little ball of happiness. The house was electric.
It seems like the excitement of such a momentous occasion hasn’t changed much since 1840, but there’s one significant emotion missing from most American weddings today: dread. Listen, if you feel differently, let me know; I’ve never been married. Our Frauenbild is saying goodbye to female company as she enters a life of servitude to her husband and children. Bye sisters! Bye friends! What a bummer. Let’s experience this whirlwind of a piece together, shall we?
My sister wasn’t weighed down by a feeling of existential dread on her wedding day because she wasn’t shifting her relationships– I think we can all happily agree that marriage no longer means cloistering oneself away from friends and family. However, it does seem that connections outside of immediate family still tend to weaken over time. Maybe for modern folks, the life change of marriage isn’t what makes adult friendships so tricky to maintain, but rather the pull of so many responsibilities in a thousand different directions. We’re all incredibly busy people, and we can only allocate so much attention to each facet of our lives. Friendships often suffer first and worst in our hectic lives, which is a mistake. I am a massive advocate for prioritizing non-romantic relationships for personal well-being.
It’s Friendsgiving season. For anyone reading over the age of thirty-five, Friendsgiving is a Thanksgiving celebrated with friends as opposed to family, often held the weekend before the traditional holiday but sometimes in place of festivities with family at all. Little pumpkins and an orange plaid runner decorate my table, and I even have festive rings hugging the cloth napkins I purchased. I mean business. The guests in question this evening are friends I’ve had since childhood, people who know my innermost thoughts and my most embarrassing moments. They have seen me throw tantrums over my hair and laugh at inopportune moments. I’ve been looking forward to hosting them for a couple of weeks now because spending time in their company genuinely makes me feel whole. Friends outside of the partnership of a romantic relationship are imperative to my happiness, and you need them, too. So does our Frauenbild.
I don’t have much to say about feminism today (a supreme shock, I’m sure), and maybe it’s the season, but what I’d like to allow us to reflect on today are relationships. The people closest to us make our lives worthwhile, enable enjoyment, and restore our spirits. I think that’s part of the reason I look back on the morning of my sister’s wedding day with such joy– I could feel the positive energy emanating from some of the people I love the most.
We have these little computers in our hands that connect us to anyone in the world, yet many of us feel increasingly disconnected. Take this opportunity to text or call a friend, see how they’re doing, and ask about their day. They want to hear from you. I need to do this too. We may not have worriedly said goodbye to all of our friends on our wedding day like our Frauenbild, but we still let relationships fade slowly by the day, week, and year when we don’t prioritize the connections that enrich our lives so profoundly.
I yawn in my childhood bed, sleepily blinking my eyes awake to the view of old photos on the wall. My sister is wide awake, atypical for her night owl self. We’re opposites in that way.
“Today’s the day!” I shout in a sing-songy voice, quoting Finding Nemo. “The sun is shining; the tank is clean!” We’ve laughed through this quote on monumental days for as long as I can remember.
We make our way to the bathroom, and I notice a tight, 1980s curling iron stuffed away in a drawer under the makeup I’ll be using today. I cringe and remember the time I tried curling my hair in 8th grade, and it was a total disaster. I threw a tantrum and was late for school. I sigh and move past the unpleasant thought– there will only be happy tears today.
I spot some old hot rollers tucked away next to the useless curling iron and recall carefully rolling up my sister’s hair for Rock ’n’ Roll Revival–a much more successful bathroom adventure. That’s the energy we’ll channel.
I stop cracking jokes, so I don’t smear the makeup on her smooth, glowing face. She looks beautiful. Her bridal party arrives throughout the morning, each member cooing over her appearance and filling the room with joy.
I run out of good hair day luck and struggle with my own. It’s the 8th-grade catastrophe all over again. One fake eyelash falls like a black spider into the sink, and I kiss that idea goodbye. Who needs falsies, anyway? The sound of excited chatter and laughter fills the house. It’s ok if my curls don’t fall in my face quite right and my eyelashes come unglued; today isn’t about me.
We throw the dress over her head. Poof! A quote from Anastasia, another childhood favorite, pops into my brain. “The Russian circus– I think it’s still in here!” I meticulously begin fastening every button, step by step. Everyone is watching; the photographer snaps a photo.
She looks perfect. No dread, no second thoughts. Only joy, surrounded by her best friends and family for life.
It’s January 2019 in Baltimore; it’s cold and rainy, but I can remember no snow on the ground. It’s the day after an audition, and despite the bottle of wine my friend and I consumed together the night before, I’m still up early. After listening to The Daily podcast from the New York Times, a ritual of mine since 2016, and consuming my first cup of coffee from a cobber-adorned Concordia College mug, my friend is still asleep. I open up Netflix on my computer and watch an episode of Adam Ruins Everything about marriage. By the time my friend awakens, I’m ready to rant.
Even then, I knew I would eventually like to be married to somebody. Still, the whole business just smelled like a scam, and it was enormously affirming for both of us to have the wedding industry exposed by Adam. Because gender roles are thoroughly ingrained in our culture, getting married is still a bigger deal for women than it is for men. As children, my friends and I surfed the David’s Bridal website and created our dream weddings. To this day, I have a wedding ideas Pinterest page that my friend and I have added to over the years. It’s less Tangled-themed than it once was but still lightly Rapunzel-adjacent. It’s a beautiful (fake) wedding.
When American couples get engaged, the woman with perfectly manicured nails usually creates the social media post. It will probably be her most-liked post ever, at least until she has the wedding and then a baby. She could get the best promotion known to humankind or find the cure to all cancers, and that ring on her finger would still be the most celebrated milestone of her life.
Until the sexual revolution and feminist movement of the mid-20th century, a traditional American woman’s job was to get married and raise kids. Maintain the house and the children, and serve your husband unquestioningly. It makes sense that weddings primarily focused on the bride because marriage was the pinnacle of a woman’s life. It was the fulfillment of her purpose. Many women today continue to make motherhood the primary focus in their lives as stay-at-home moms and don’t get me wrong, I respect that because that is their choice– hopefully, no one forced them into this role. American women have many options at their disposal today, and I celebrate women who choose to be stay-at-home moms– they are empowered in their decision. There are so many pros and cons to having one parent stay home. The burden of that choice in heterosexual marriages often still falls on the woman, but again, more on that later. I can’t espouse all my opinions on feminism all at once, nor can I fully comment because I am not married, nor do I have children.
Despite a shift in gender norms, I still notice that in the weddings of heterosexual couples, there is much more emphasis placed on the importance of marriage in the bride’s life. Listen– that Pinterest board is waiting if I get married. I want to look ridiculously hot and take that ring photo, as long as my nails don’t look too crusty. My hair and makeup will be flawless, my bachelorette party fabulous, and the flowers will be pristine. I love a party– despite my commentary about the culture of weddings, do you really think I’d miss out on that if I could help it? Maybe I’ll be more emotionally invested in the wedding itself, but I’d like the marriage to be equally crucial for both of us.
Before you get too angry with me, I want to be clear that I’m not saying that getting married is stupid or overrated. Marriage is an incredible milestone and a celebration of a union, an equal partnership, between two individuals who want to build a life together. That is something to be celebrated. I am, however, advocating for two equal voices in a marriage that each bring something to the table– maybe more like two puzzle pieces fitting together than one person completely giving themselves over to the other person’s wants and needs—in other words, an actual union.
That’s not what was happening for our Frauenbild in 1840. She basically sings a hymn to her ring–an intentional choice on Schumann’s part–and vows to give herself over entirely to her husband. Yuck. BUT AGAIN, I’m not here to completely write off ol’ Robby or even Adelbert (ol’ Bert? What do you think?) because modern gender roles are entirely different from those in the 1800s. I can’t expect radical feminism from these guys. Anyway, she sings this hymn to her ring because she is a virginal woman who puts God first and her husband second, and becoming a wife is the premiere joy and duty of her life.
Listen, there’s some nice stuff in here. The beautiful ring reminds us of the love our protagonist shares with her future husband, the open celebration and acknowledgment of their intense feelings for one another. Love is beautiful, and an intention to stand by someone even after the honeymoon phase is admirable–something I think most of us, deep down, seek to have in our lives. But if our Frauenbild is a modern woman, this is just one significant milestone in her life and equally important to the man in question. She doesn’t serve him or cease to exist outside of him. Instead, she is enhanced and supported by his devotion, as he is by hers. Together.
Edit: this is a work of fiction and I am NOT ENGAGED!!! This is purely imaginative!!!
Four rings adorn my fingers. I close my eyes and imagine there are five. Picturing my dry, winter-worn hands and stubby fingernails, I gaze at my right hand. The first, a ruby class ring, catches the light and draws fellow graduates into my sphere. The second, an old costume ring representing my birthstone, glistens in wintry blue. On my left hand, I notice the third ring, an understated opal reminding me of my Grandma, which nestles on the fourth– a ring from one of my best friends. It simply says, “I am enough.”
There is a fifth ring curled up against those words. I know I am enough, and someone else thought so, too. It’s affirming, somehow–external validation and all. I am the same person, whether the ring is snugly fitted on my finger or sitting on a bedside table. It sparkles in every light; it weighs magnificently on my finger, golden and perfect. I’m proud to wear it, happy to show it off, and delighted to add it to the collection.
Welcome to the party, little ring. I didn’t become a whole person when I slipped on this precious ring. It’s merely another rung in my journey. Each of my rings reminds me of something I cherish: my education, my favorite color, my family, and my personal growth. And now, a new ring. This ring reminds me of the love I share, the union I’ve formed with another person—what a lovely reminder to have.
I walk onstage, sweating in my flattering black dress and kitten heels, staring out into a dark auditorium. A dozen other young artists are staring back nervously at me, but I don’t deserve to be here. I’m the worst singer; I’m too old, and they only hired me because they love my friend. I’m going to sound like a stubbed toe.
I wait in the wings and absentmindedly run my fingers over the curtain. The soprano onstage in a tight-fitting red dress effortlessly executes a difficult cadenza; the audience is captivated by her vocal fireworks. I can’t possibly expect to sing well after hearing her perfectly executed aria.
I scan my application for the hundredth time, ensuring everything is perfect. The committee will likely receive way better applicants than me; my project is garbage, and so is my singing. I hit submit and sigh.
It’s one of the many buzzwords surrounding mental health that comes up so often that it has become less effective, but yes, it’s imposter syndrome, and I don’t know a single singer who doesn’t suffer from it at least a little bit. Given the sheer number of rejections we receive from auditions and harsh feedback from voice teachers and coaches, it’s no wonder that most singers feel inadequate, just like our protagonist in Ich kann’s nicht fassen, nicht glauben.
I prefer to think of the third song in Frauenliebe und –leben through the lens of her imposter syndrome rather than her eye-rolling worship of a man she “doesn’t deserve.” Give me a break. How many of us have started dating a man only to discover his sink is full of dishes and he doesn’t replace the toilet paper roll? This dude was absolutely not perfect, especially since it was the 19th century. He probably smelled like a troll. The fact that our Frauenbild is experiencing imposter syndrome over a stinky gentleman is ridiculous. I’ve known enough men to know there’s not a single one for whom I’m not “good enough.” The bigger question for the modern woman is finding someone whose personality, goals, and ideals align with her own. I hope our Frauenbild turned protagonist has found these qualities in her smelly man. (I’d like to add here that she is also probably stinky. Everyone reeked in 1840.)
Let’s take a peek at our lyrics and translation.
A word on “slurping blissful death”– this translation is incredible and often changes to something like “savor” or “drink” in a poetic translation, but justice for “slurp.” It’s such an evocative image, even if it disturbs the romantic aura of it all.
Women are statistically less likely to apply for jobs in which they do not meet all qualifications than men. Women are more likely to apologize when an apology is not warranted. Women are likelier to add unnecessary exclamation points in emails to soften their tone. Women are less likely to ask for a raise when they deserve one. We are constantly diminishing ourselves to make others comfortable. We need to stop doing this, even when it’s hard!
I tell a similar story often, and I’ll tell it again here. Before I start, I want to clarify that this is not a sob story and that I do not feel bad for my past self, so put your tiny violin away.
Boys did not seem to like me that much in high school or college, at least to my knowledge. I grew up in the midwest, where people are overly polite and concerned with being nice, especially women. “Minnesota Nice” is worn like a badge of honor where I was raised. I’ve always been loud and opinionated, and I don’t shy away from showing my intelligence and capability where my input is appropriate. That can be off-putting in a culture that rewards niceness, particularly in women. By the time I obtained my degree, I had fully convinced myself that I was obviously fat and ugly (problematic language, but it’s how I felt), and that’s why boys weren’t that into me. When I moved to North Carolina for graduate school, I was almost shocked by the shift in attention from men. I was precisely the same, and yet I was suddenly “sweet,” “smart,” and “nice.” People in the south thought I was nice. At my core, I am a kindhearted person, but I do not think most people would describe me as nice in the midwest. I am too boisterous. Even though it was difficult, I’m glad I didn’t change who I was to make myself more palatable to men.
One of my goals coming out the other side of my vocal injury is to take up space in every room I occupy. If I sing at a concert, an audition, or a recital, it’s because I deserve it. I warrant my significant other’s love for me because we are a good pair who complement each other well. I deserve every job interview I am granted, gig I land, and scholarship I obtain. When I’m in a room, I take up space. People notice me. I want them to see you, too. I don’t apologize for who I am, and I don’t think there’s a better person at being me.
Our Fraunebild deserves her happiness, too. She is good enough.
I lay my head on his chest, and his fingers interlace with mine. I feel his breath rise and fall steadily, like a clock ticking.
“I love you,” he whispers in my ear. Butterflies enter my stomach; my spine shivers with admiration and fear.
“How do you know?” I ask shakily.
He smiles and doesn’t say anything. I ask again, “what are three things you like about me?”
Laughing, he answers, “It’s not particular things. I just do.”
Worry and guilt wash over me. My brow furrows. Eventually, my novelty will wear off, and only inadequacies will be left. Will he still love me when I’m no longer shiny and new?
He clasps my hand harder and kisses my head as if he guesses what I’m thinking. He knows.
Hey, if you like what I’m doing, won’t you consider donating?
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.