Whose Voice Is Heard When the Song Is Sung?

Excerpt from Opening Convocation address by Jane O’Donnell, Bessie and Cecil Frankel Professor of Music, September 12. The full convocation address can be found here.

I want us to listen to a song, an art song. It’s a song of my choosing; one I have performed more than a few times. Just listen..

A woman is singing this song. Her name is Anne Sofie von Otter, a young swedish mezzo-soprano who is becoming a very popular and noted singer of art songs. Are we hearing only her voice? On the surface, yes, but if by “voice” we mean the authority behind or authorship of the meaning of the song, we have to look further…The poem, written by Adelbert von Chamisso, was set to music by Robert Schumann in 1840, the year he married Clara Wieck. Ms. Otter is, in this situation, the carrier (the performer) of these words set to this music. What are the words?

What are their meaning? What is the meaning of the music used to set the words?

First of all, the song is in German. And unless you speak the language, you can’t know the meaning, you can’t very well imagine why Shcumann wrote the music he did…It is the second of eight songs linked together as a cycle and entitled Frauenliebe und Leben (“Women’s Love and Life”). The eight poems chronicle the life of a woman from the time she first sees the man she is to marry until his death…

The poet is/was a man of the nineteenth century. But, do [the words] portray or capture how a woman would feel or express herself under the circumstances? Are they words that Mr. Otter assumes as her own as she sings the song? We would have to ask her, right? Could you assume them as your own?

I would suggest, along with other feminist scholars, that the eight songs are not so much a portrayal of a woman, as “the impersonation of a woman by the voices of male culture”*; in other words, how 19th century men hoped to be regarded by their wives. Does everyone agree with that assessment? I doubt it… Let me try to use this “exercise” as an analogy that speaks directly to you, today, as you begin this new adventure as college students.

What I have begun to do with this song is not unlike what I would urge you to do in all of your encounters with new ideas and new people, and even your long-held ideas. Go beyond the surface of things; dig deeper. Be a questioner. Be open to new things. Be open to difference. Go beyond the comfortable surface; become a “translator.” Seek connections. Find links to understanding, knowing that there need not always be agreement. Do all this and more so that when you graduate and leave Scripps College, the voice heard when you sing your song will be worth listening to, but even more important, that voice will be truly yours.

* Solie, Ruth A. “Whose Life? The gendered self in Schumann’s Fruenlieble songs,” Scher, Steven P., ed. Music and Text: Critical Inquiries. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 220.