The Girl with the Schumann Tattoo

Oct 3, 2016

I’d always been part of the choir, not out front as a soloist. I’d always been fiercely independent. Singing Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und -leben” for a chamber music class forced me to step outside of my comfort zone and taught me things I never could have imagined.

Seit ich ihn gesehen, Glaub' ich blind zu sein.
"Since I first laid eyes on him, I thought I must be blind."

Thus begins 20-ish minutes of gut-wrenching (if it’s done right) music for mezzo-soprano and piano. When I was in college, I took a class called “Chamber Music: Performance and Analysis,” was assigned this piece, and became totally immersed in it for a few months. I'm not sure if I love it now because of its beauty or because of a mild case of Stockholm Syndrome.

There are eight songs in this piece, following the life of a young woman and her romantic journey with some ridiculously-good-looking guy. It’s based on a set of poems written in 1830 by Adelbert von Chamisso. Trying to assume the character of this woman who is totally bonkers for some guy she’s just met, and all of the things that followed, proved… let’s just say “difficult.”

The songs in the cycle are as follows, with my (at the time) pessimistic-20-year-old’s-point-of-view summary of each:

  1. "Seit ich ihn gesehen" ("Since I Saw Him") - WOW! Look at how attractive this dude is! I must be blind, I can’t see anything else but him. Holy heck he’s so dreamy.
  2. "Er, der Herrlichste von allen" ("He, the Noblest of All") - Have I mentioned just how dreamy he is? Dreamy McDreamyface. He is way out of my league. But gosh, he’s just so DREAMY.
  3. "Ich kann's nicht fassen, nicht glauben" ("I Cannot Grasp or Believe It") - I had a dream the other night, where we were together, and that dream was so amazing, but ughhhh that’s never going to happen, it was just a dream. It can never be so!
  4. "Du Ring an meinem Finger" ("You Ring Upon My Finger") - Oh, did I mention, we’re engaged now? Take a look at this rock.
  5. "Helft mir, ihr Schwestern" ("Help Me, Sisters") - Hey ladies, help me, I’m getting married! Help me… I don’t know, get dressed and frolic and stuff.
  6. "Süßer Freund, du blickest mich verwundert an" ("Sweet Friend, You Gaze") - Guess what guys, I’m pregnant! Crying happy tears over here.
  7. "An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust" ("At My Heart, At My Breast") - I finally have a baby and I’ve never been happier. I pity those who can’t experience just how gosh-darn happy I am right now. Seriously, you just don’t get how happy I am. I feel so bad for men, because men can’t have babies.
  8. "Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan" ("Now You Have Caused Me Pain for the First Time") - He's dead. My world is in shambles. How dare he die and leave me all alone?

Naturally, as someone who had never been in love, and didn’t ever want to be a mother, I didn’t really get it. My professor kept telling me “you need to BE this woman! I’m just not feeling it from you!” and I would mutter under my breath how ridiculous this all was, and reluctantly try again.

This class was three hours long, every Monday night, and for the first hour and a half the professor would pick one of the four groups (a piano quintet, a piano trio, me and my pianist compatriot, and another voice/piano duet) and have the group go over a couple of phrases, picking each phrase apart. When it was my turn, that meant 90 minutes of singing the same phrase, being told it wasn’t good enough, to try doing XYZ differently, and do it again… with an audience of the other classmates, 10 performance majors (I was a history/composition major) who were actually good at their instruments. I was… not.

At the end of the semester, we gave a concert, and (thank goodness) very few people came. I got through the piece and even heard from some faculty that it wasn’t half bad. Thankfully, no recording of this performance exists. But six years after the concert, when I had the itch to get another tattoo, and wanted it to be music-related, it seemed obvious what the subject matter needed to be: Frauenliebe, in particular, my favorite line from the piece: Es kann ja nimmer so sein - It can never be so!

Ultimately, why this phrase, out of the whole piece? It was more than the fact that it was the climax of my favorite movement to sing, with its over-dramatic lyrics, lower vocal range, and patter-song-like rhythm that made it easier to “ham it up” and act like this woman I could never fathom having anything in common with. As someone a few years older and with a little bit more life experience, that one line now holds a couple of layers of meaning:

  1. That thing you’re telling yourself you can’t do, that you would never do, that you won’t do? Just shut up and do it already. I was always in the background of things, preferring to blend in rather than make myself seen out front. When the professor told me I’d have to be louder than a grand piano, I snorted. When he said I’d have to fully absorb this character in order to perform this piece, I scoffed. I told myself I’d never be able to get into this woman’s head to the point where I could give any sort of halfway-decent performance. And, by the time the semester was over, I could do all of that. “It can never be so” that I’ll do all these things? With enough hard work, yes, it can. Quit getting in your own way, and get over yourself, and it can be so.
  2. Nothing in life is forever. In Frauenliebe, the woman falls HARD for a man she’s barely met, and in this movement she laments that though she dreams of his love, “it can never be so” - yet, moments later in the story, they’re engaged, they’re married, they have a child, and she’s happier than she’s ever imagined possible. Then, out of nowhere, he dies, and she’s crushed. Yes, lady, it can be so… but it may not be so forever. If I was going to have any music-related phrase permanently etched into my arm, I wanted this one to be there, as a reminder to stop worrying about all the things that haven’t happened yet in life and just live it. Just let things happen as they’re going to. No situation is permanent. (Well, except maybe a tattoo.)

Now, when people see my arm, and ask “what’s that?” it’s hard to explain. It’s a lot to unpack in a short amount of time, for people who probably don’t actually care. I tell them “oh, it’s from a piece I studied in college,” and leave it at that. It’s more for me than for anyone else: a small reminder to myself of a piece of music that changed how I see the world.