“Are you okay?” is often what I’m asked when someone I don’t know well passes me and notices that I’m mumbling to myself in German.
To most of my friends, my mumbling doesn’t really come as a surprise anymore. It’s something that I’ve been doing since spring semester when I began studying a German song cycle by Robert Schumann. The cycle, entitled Dichterliebe or ‘Poet’s Love,’ is a collection of 16 poems written by Heinrich Heine in the early 19th century and set to music of that same period of German Romanticism for solo voice and piano.
I began work on the cycle this past March after I received a grant from the Davidson Research Initiative (DRI), which facilitates in-depth, collaborative research between students and faculty mentors on campus over the summer. Artist Associate and Departmental Accompanist David Gilliland and I have been collaborating, exploring and developing our own interpretation of the piece. It takes approximately 30 minutes to sing and this interpretation is the biggest musical undertaking I’ve ever attempted.
Rote Memorization Meets Artistic Interpretation
Now we do most of our work in Dr. Gilliland’s studio (or more recently, the recital hall). Early on in the process, we studied one or two songs in a single session. We started by engaging with the poems themselves, pouring over the translations and doing an informal literary analysis. We traded observations about the texts with each other–what we thought each recurring image symbolized, what connections we could make between different parts of the cycle, and what each poem contributes to the larger structure of the piece. After studying the text, we examined the musical details of each song and tried approaching them in different ways.
Tempo, dynamics, shaping of musical phrases, and emotional expression are all variables that we consider in both the context of each song as well as the context of the entire piece. More recently, we have focused on performing the entire cycle in one sitting, solidifying details like intonation, articulation, and accurate pronunciation.
More than just memorizing 200 lines of German Romantic-era poetry and the accompanying music, the research process has been an exercise in artistic interpretation as well as disciplined musicianship.
Whereas the DRI used to be mainly the province of the maths and sciences, in recent years the humanities and critical social sciences have become part of the Initiative’s domain of intellectual inquiry. The summer of 2013 marked the first time a non-science DRI project was undertaken by a group of students in Davidson’s Theatre Department. This summer, our investigation of Schumann’s Dichterliebe is the Initiative’s first project that is affiliated with the Music Department. I’m excited by these “firsts” for the DRI that speak to a broader institutional trend of acknowledging the value of research in areas besides math and science. In reality, our entire project is an experiment–we engage in investigative research in our musical version of a lab.
Universal Human Experience
A song cycle about unrequited love that was written over 175 years ago can inspire us and assist our understanding of the present, as much as literature and the sciences. This project is the culmination of a passion I’ve had for these German lieder for more than a year. When asked why exactly I’m studying Dichterliebe, the answer is very straightforward: these songs speak to a universal human experience communicated in soaring poetry and music written more than 175 years ago. The project is my attempt to plumb the depth of emotions expressed by this work of Heine and Schumann, and to share the bounty of this enrichment with those who might care to listen.