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The String Quartet in E flat major (1834) by Fanny Hensel, née Mendelssohn, is one of the most important works by a female composer written in the nineteenth century. Composed at a turning point in her life (as Hensel was not only grappling with her own creative voice but also coming to terms with her identity as a married woman, and the role her family expected of her), the quartet is significant in showing a woman composing in a genre that was then almost exclusively the domain of male artists. Benedict Taylor's illuminating book situates itself within developing scholarly discourse on the music of women composers, going beyond apologetics – or condemnation of those who hindered their development – to examine the strength and qualities of the music and how it responded to the most progressive works of the period.
Part I, ‘Hearing Subjects’, turns attention to Robert Schumann, addressing the composer’s early grappling with the Romantic problematisation of subjectivity and personal identity frequently present in his music of the 1830s and early 1840s. In ‘Hearing the Self’, I trace the historical development of subjectivity in music up to Schumann’s time, before turning to an early and notable exemplification of the composer’s practice in Carnaval. This forms the starting point for a more detailed consideration of the ways in which a sense of subjectivity can be manifested in Schumann’s piano music of the 1830s, including such features as allusiveness, idiosyncrasy, interiority, a fantasy principle in connexion of moods, and the questioning of continuity and coherence. Finally, I look at the sense of subjectivity conveyed in Schumann’s concertos and the sense in which they collapse distinctions between self and world.
‘Hearing Selves’ outlines the problem of the divided subject as manifested in philosophical discourse around the turn of the nineteenth century as well as in several of Schumann’s favourite authors such as Jean Paul and E. T. A. Hoffmann. Against this backdrop we may better understand Schumann’s creation of his alter egos Florestan and Eusebius and his whimsical questioning of subjective identity. Subsequently, this chapter delves more deeply into the musical features that make a sense of divided subjectivity palpable, examining the conflicting voices and sense of irony present in Schumann’s Lieder of 1840, above all his settings of Heine, alongside the split levels of discourse created in instrumental music through the use of tonal dualism, textural interleaving, and the use of metric dissonance to suggest a conception of the self as an agglomeration of diverse bodily rhythms subsisting through overlapping temporal processes.
From his own time up to the present, Robert Schumann has been associated with the idea of subjectivity, to an extent perhaps greater than any other composer in the Western tradition. This opening section traces the historical reach of the connection between Schumann’s music and subjectivity, its situation in early nineteenth-century (and primarily German) discourses about the self and interiority, and starts to unravel the range of meanings contained in the term subjectivity. I outline the three primary aims of the following book, which can be given as Critical, Musical, and Philosophical. Finally, this section provides an overview of the ensuing argument of the book.
A lack of self-recognition may point to psychological disorder and self-estrangement, and this chapter tackles the problematic notions of late style and madness in Schumann’s oeuvre. Still, misrecognition, mishearing, and their resulting subjective estrangement is wound throughout Schumann’s oeuvre, from the close of the Op. 35 Kerner cycle and the enigmatic piano miniature ‘Vogel als Prophet’ to the magical mirror scene from Genoveva; in extreme form it is manifested in the depiction of madness in the Andersen setting ‘Der Spielmann’. Most troublingly, the loss of musical self-recognition is epitomised autobiographically in the theme of the late Geistervariationen, with its reworking of an idea found in the slow movement of the Violin Concerto, but one which Schumann misattributed to the spirits of Schubert and Mendelssohn. Yet as I argue at the chapter’s close, the psychological state of the music’s virtual subjects often bear scant relation to anything that can be shown to apply to the actual biographical subject, Robert Schumann. In recognising signs of insanity in Schumann’s music, commentators are often only reading their own presuppositions into it.
Chapter 6, ‘Absence of the Other’, points to moments in Schumann where the music is marked by the absence of another’s voice, be it through the Romantic evocation of distant voices in pieces such as the Novelletten’s ‘Stimme aus der Ferne’, or, more troublingly, the loss of voice in songs like ‘Des Sennen Abschied’ and ‘Die Sennin’ – a non-presence often explicitly denoting death, as is the case at the close of Frauenliebe or in the Kerner setting ‘Aus das Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes’. As is found increasingly in Schumann’s later work, the music may pointedly not trace a successful ‘coming to lyricism’: the emergence of an expected lyrical voice is missing. This tendency is epitomised in the genre of melodrama, where music accompanies a declaimed speech that refuses to attain the subjective presence of lyricism, and in pieces such as Manfred.
The absence of a singular first-person voice in music may simply indicate that such music is speaking in the plural, in the third person, or in some more objective manner. These questions are examined in the opening chapter of Part IV, ‘Hearing Others’. Looking first at the use of quotation, allusion, and intertextuality in Schumann’s music (in this, picking up the question of ‘whose voice?’ left at the close of Chapter 4), ‘Hearing Another’s Voice’ goes on to explore questions of intersubjectivity and the collective seen in the ‘objective’ tendency of Schumann’s music across the 1840s, the distinction between a divided subject and multiple subjects in the composer’s choral, orchestral, and chamber works, before considering the attempted union of self with world, the subjective with the objective, in two of his later songs, ‘Abendlied’ and ‘Nachtlied’. This eighth chapter thus focuses on those examples from Schumann’s music that have a generally positive ethos, when self and other can still be still distinguished.
In the Epilogue to this book, I turn away from the hypothetical subjects heard in music and to our own selves, as thinking, feeling, meaning-making subjects, as interpretants of music and our own subjectivity alike. Why are the notions of subjectivity associated with Schumann’s music still of relevance today? What is the work that music does that enables it to become one of our most cherished means for hearing ourselves, for self-recognition? And what are the attendant dangers – hermeneutic, aesthetic, but more significantly ethical – in such an endeavour?
The absence of lyrical voice in pieces such as Schumann’s Manfred and Ballads for Declamation may point not only to the absence of the other but also to the absence of the subject itself. ‘Absence of the Self’ explores the potential loss of self implied by the absence of lyrical voice, highlighted in the missing silent ‘inner voice’ of the Humoreske, which forms an apt exemplification of later twentieth-century accounts of the illusory, ‘barred’ subject proposed by such thinkers as Lacan, Kristeva, and Žižek, or the empty centre at the heart of the Eichendorff Liederkreis that results from the absence of a unified subject position and any sense of narrative continuity.
Part II, ‘Hearing Presence’, examines in more depth two aspects identified in the opening chapters that contribute to a sense of subjectivity in music: the feeling of embodied presence or immediacy of self-possession, and the notion of vocality, epitomised here in what I call the ‘coming to lyricism’ paradigm. Crucial in philosophical accounts of subjectivity since at least the start of the nineteenth century is the notion of self-consciousness or self-recognition. By this token, ascribing subjectivity to music is to hear it not only speaking as an I, but speaking as if knowing it is speaking as an I. When does music appear to be aware of itself, and how might this be manifested? Chapter 4, ‘Presence of the Self’, offers an initial approach to answering this question, examining the healing of the divided self by the emergence of a sense of unifying, embodied subjectivity in some of Schumann’s songs and instrumental works, and to what extent we might speak of such moments as constituting a form of musical reflexivity or self-consciousness – a topic which will necessarily spill over into the following chapter.
In Chapter 5, ‘Presence of the Other’, the implicit subject / object split reintroduced into the musical subject by the need for its own self-recognition finds a potential solution in the presence of an other in whom the self may see itself mirrored. Indeed, Schumann’s writing and music suggest a blurring of identities and fusion of self and other that resonates strongly with the Romantic mythology of hermaphroditic union, as seen in the 1841 song collection Liebesfrühling jointly written with Clara. Through this mirroring and recognition of self in other, Schumann’s music may in certain cases be claimed to achieve a state of self-conscious awareness, to ‘hear itself singing’. Yet, as pointed to at the chapter’s close, such doubling of self and other always runs the risk of narcissism – the idea that the beloved object is merely a self-image, a fabrication of the subject’s desire.