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Vanishing Sensibilities: Schubert, Beethoven, Schumann by Kristina Muxfeldt (review)

From: Goethe Yearbook
Volume 20, 2013
pp. 292-295 | 10.1353/gyr.2013.0000

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While Kristina Muxfeldt expresses concern about our vanishing sensibilities regarding the meaning of musical pieces and practices of a still active musical canon (xvi), her essay collection certainly helps to regain or ascertain our sensitivities and understandings of the (musical) culture during the first decades of the nineteenth century. Her essays, three on Schubert, two on Beethoven, and one on Robert Schumann, are in part revised versions of previously published articles, such as the piece on Schumann’s song cycle Frauenliebe und Leben, which one can find in The Literature of German Romanticism, edited by Dennis F. Mahoney. The various references throughout the book to earlier renderings of her essays allow for the reader to witness a process of maturing and an intradialogue that helps explain why the collection creates such a gem. Besides the refined prose, meticulous and up-to-date research, and excellent apparatus—including extensive appendices, and the inclusion of relevant German quotations within the main text or otherwise in full length in the notes (not a given any longer)—the book is captivating above all because of its unpretentious yet sophisticated hermeneutic dialogic structure.

Take, for instance, Muxfeldt’s essay on Schumann’s rendering of Adalbert Chamisso’s Frauenlieben und Leben, composed in 1840, ten years after its inception. While Germanisten such as Gerhard Kaiser quickly and all too safely dismiss Chamisso’s poetic cycle as a prototypical expression of a male-dominated culture, since it presents “only scenes of emotional intensity or crisis in a woman’s relation to her husband” (86), it is Muxfeldt’s approach to ask what made these poems so appealing in the first place, not just for Clara and Robert Schumann but also for their contemporaries. Since Muxfeldt is well-informed about the gender discourse and in fact makes gender sensibilities one of the book’s thematic threads, it allows her genuine gesture toward Verstehen of the times and its circumstances without running the danger of naïveté. The latter does, however, not imply that she focuses on the intentionality of the poet or composer. Instead, instigated by the continued performances of Schumann’s song cycle, Muxfeldt’s hermeneutic approach pushes aside “an ungenerously exclusionary reply to the past” (88) by exposing the gender dynamics of the time so that the poems “may be understood as a shrewd . . . response to the widely perceived male-centrism of the poetic market” (93). As a result, Muxfeldt’s discussion of the poems and their musical adaptations reaches nuanced insights, for example, when she comments on Chamisso’s texts as follows: “Social tendencies that appear to us ‘progressive’ or ‘retrogressive’ may mingle in the past in combinations unfamiliar and even alienating today” (96). In the case of Schumann’s cycle she includes the performative aspects of music and reminds us, for example, that despite Chamisso’s “retrogressive” poems they provided women singers with songs “that did not require them to impersonate a male persona” (96).

Another positive trait of the book as a whole can be discerned in this particular essay as Muxfeldt impressively masters the historical, literary, and musical discourses and their respective disciplines in order to explore her object of inquiry as a whole. When she analyzes the song cycle in musical terms, she easily blends her descriptive analysis with that of the previous literary observations, as the following quote demonstrates: “But Schumann chose to end his cycle of songs in the present, omitting the widow’s nostalgic reflection on her story from a distant future. Relief from the extreme psychological devastation of ‘die Welt ist leer’ comes not with the passage of time but by an act of will (harmonically as well as emotionally) in the remarkable voice leading that brings the tonicized dominant of D minor, where the singer ends, back to the tonic, B ♭ (as is shown in the ex. 3.3)” (110). The confluence of text and music, and integration of examples from the musical score (and at times visual cues), plus extensive footnotes, invites the reader to create a Gesamtkunstwerk, especially if one wants to listen to a recording of the respective musical pieces.

As mentioned above, the book as a whole carries an awareness of how...

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