Why would any self-respecting woman perform Schumann’s Frauenliebe und leben?

Robert Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben is a song cycle that depicts, in eight poems, a woman’s love and life. Its texts, poems by Adelbert von Chamisso, sum up a woman’s life roughly as: 1. I can’t think of anything but him; 2. He’s wonderful and I am not worthy; 3. OMG – he said he loved me; 4. I am his and have the ring to prove it; 5. Girlfriends: today I leave you for him; 6. I am pregnant with mini-you; 7. I feed my baby and am fulfilled; 8. Your death is the first time you have truly hurt me.

How does any self-respecting modern woman perform the song cycle today, in which the female protagonist is defined solely in relation to the man and her role as wife and mother?

Missing are the songs about locking yourself in a bathroom to cry over being dumped, or the bittersweet freedom of ending a relationship and moving on, or the relief of finally being able to hand the baby to someone else and put on a top that doesn’t need to open for quick access to your breast. Missing is any sense of this woman’s place outside of the home.

Isn’t it faintly ridiculous to stand before an audience and sing these pieces today?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say … well, no, I don’t think it is.

The song cycle is a work that I have loved for many years. I was first attracted by the sheer beauty of the music. It’s somehow simple and charming on the surface, but with hidden depths – often in the piano part, in which subtle changes to repetitions develop the emotional impact of the woman’s words, or a lower octave reinforces intensity of feeling (for instance in the fourth song, Du Ring an meinem Finger – it’s one of my favourite moments!). There’s also the way the voice and piano respond to each other, sometimes conversing, sometimes speaking as one. The piano postlude, which looks back to the opening of the cycle, moves me to tears in performance – the same notes presented with the weight of time passed. The music speaks where words no longer can.

But, as I spent more time with the text, I found that I could relate to many emotions in the individual songs of Frauenliebe. I remember the feeling of first teenage crushes, of being unable to think of anything else, the thrill of getting engaged, the bustle of preparing for my wedding. And, like Schumann’s fictional woman, I still treasure the memories of feeding my children and the intense, private connection I felt to them. I am fortunate enough not to have experienced the death of a partner, but deeply empathise with the numbness of the final song.

These songs were composed in 1840 to poems written in 1830. The accepted and expected view of a woman’s life was pretty much as described here. The words are of their time. But let’s not forget that there are also feistier women portrayed in 19th-century song. I’m thinking of the poems translated into German by Paul Heyse that Hugo Wolf set in his Italienisches Liederbuch; Schumann’s heroine certainly seems quite conservative in comparison to Wolf’s more sexually adventurous character. But singers are used to inhabiting characters on stage that have nothing to do with our own personalities. I didn’t feel I had much in common with Mozart’s Queen of the Night or Handel’s Semele, for example, but a singer’s job is to use their imagination and empathy to understand motivations and make each character believable.

When I said to my friend and regular collaborator Joseph Middleton that I’d like to record Frauenliebe, he suggested we expand the cycle to include not only Robert’s settings of other poets but also some songs by his talented wife, Clara, so as to give a new context for, and add depth to, this fictional woman.

Clara Wieck had an international career as a virtuoso pianist and composer; as a young girl she was a dazzling talent amid a world of men on stage. Throughout her married life, she was the main breadwinner, bearer of eight children, and Robert’s support in his struggles with mental illness. She lived for 40 years after he died, and continued her international performing career. We know from their correspondence that she worried about being able to fulfil the role of “good” wife and mother. The lack of time to practise troubled her, and there were phases of her life where she succumbed to the idea, prevalent at the time, that women didn’t compose. But her composing seems to have been a form of escapism – she described it as winning “hours of self-forgetfulness”.

She set timeless texts such as Liebst du um Schönheit by Friedrich Rückert, which asks the lover not to love for beauty, youth or treasure, but for love itself. One of the most extraordinary songs on the album, for me, is Clara Schumann’s setting of Die stille Lotosblume (The Quiet Lotus Flower), which doesn’t start or end on the home chord, as would be conventional. The entire song is suspended, somehow, and we use it to lead from the uncertainty of courtship to the certainty of betrothal.

Does this sound old-fashioned? At this juncture, I should say that songs about breastfeeding or divorce do not feature on this album either. Maybe I’ll do a fully autobiographical programme when I feel braver! (And to anyone looking for a more contemporary take on a woman’s life, I would recommend the excellent One Life Stand, by Cheryl Frances-Hoad in 2011, setting texts by Sophie Hannah as a response to Frauenliebe und -leben.)

Instead, we’ve broken up the cycle with songs that stay in the same style both musically and poetically, but offer a more three-dimensional life for this unnamed woman through other songs that Robert Schumann set. Rather than going straight from the wedding to revealing a pregnancy, we include a beautifully tender description of erotic love (Die Lotosblume) followed by a stormy night of desire (Lust der Sturmnacht). Parenthood becomes fuller, with the (brief) peace of a sleeping child, to playtime – both expressed here in piano solos – to a visit from the Sandman. My heart breaks as we confront the torment of impending death in Heinrich Heine’s Dein Angesicht and Lily Bernhard’s Mädchen Schwermut. All these emotions feel incredibly potent, and it makes absolute sense to sing about them.

For me, one of the most important aspects of our woman’s reimagined context is that her story begins before the lover appears and continues after his death. It was never possible for me that the album would end with her withdrawing into herself to remain with her memories. We have a Requiem for her lost partner, and a final piano solo offers a quiet moment of mourning but also moves us on to the next phase of her life. If there were to be a volume two, it would begin with that piece.

Album fur die Frau: Scenes from the Schumanns’ Lieder by Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton is out now on BIS and is available via Presto Music.

Read this blog on the Guardian website.


Meeting Detlev Glanert

I first met Detlev Glanert in 2010, when I gave the first performance of his orchestration of Schubert’s Einsamkeit (D620). It had been commissioned for me and the Halle Orchestra to perform under the baton of Markus Stenz alongside Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in Bridgewater Hall, Manchester.

At the time, I remember being pretty daunted to meet a composer! I am in awe of anyone who can create music. But Detlev is such a kind and generous soul that I immediately felt at ease. He and Markus are great company, and it was a joy to go for a curry with them and talk about Schubert (also Detlev’s resemblance to Franz!), music, and life in general. But apart from the social side…

Einsamkeit has a very special place in Schubert’s catalogue. At nearly 20 minutes long, and through-composed rather than strophic, it is a deeply-felt journey through Johann Mayrhofer’s evocative text, which closes: ‘The youth’s longing for solitude becomes the old man’s portion, and a life rough and precarious has yet led to happiness.’ *

Detlev’s version has a wonderful way of enriching the music by using the colours available with an orchestra, but never seeking to impose his own voice on Schubert’s or to be intrusive. It provides a new way for us to hear this extraordinary work, and hopefully brings it to a wider audience. I was very much looking forward to performing Einsamkeit again in August 2020 with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, but of course, that project had to be cancelled in light of the pandemic. I hope it will happen in the future.

This manner of lending us new ears is also how Detlev has approached Purcell’s ‘Music for a While’. He has chosen to retain the vocal line and harmony largely as originally composed. His expression comes through a stretching of the range of the piano part, through new rhythmic figures, and new articulation, which point the words subtly but clearly. It is recognisably the song we know and love, given new life in a delicate way. I find it intimate and telling of the way this last year has been for many of us. It has a sense of yearning, and I find myself truly wanting to believe that music can indeed beguile all our cares.

If you don’t know Detlev’s music, I’d love to point you in the direction of a few pieces that I think are really worth you exploring:

This promotional clip for his opera of 2019 ‘Oceane’ gives a sense of the grandeur of his writing. It’s in German, but do watch it, even if you don’t speak the language! It looks and sounds fabulous!

I wish I’d had an opportunity to see this live – it looks incredibly powerful. And what a gorgeous looking production from Robert Carson. There’s a recording available, too.

There’s another video (in English) currently available here which I think gives a brilliant insight into how Detlev developed his craft. It’s great to hear him talking about his path, his work, and his thoughts on writing music. In fact, it just makes me want to go and hear more!

*translation Emily Ezust


Singing for the first time in four months

The strangeness of boarding a plane struck me four weeks ago.

Of course, it’s actually perfectly normal (once you get beyond the obvious weirdness of being in a big metal can in the air). But after four months of being grounded, it sure felt strange to be in such close proximity to so many people. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling.

But the temptation of an actual concert, on a stage with real, live musicians, in front of a visible, breathing (shhh…say it quietly) audience, was too much to resist. Oh yes. And a fee.

I sang very little between March 13 and July 8. Having two school-aged children kept me busy, and anyway, I found it either upsetting or frustrating. I would look at my scores and have no idea where to start. I had no motivation, and I felt as though there was nothing I wanted to sing; and what was the point anyway?

Then came the offer from Pascal Rophé and his Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire of this socially-distanced chamber version of Mahler’s 4th Symphony, originally planned with no audience at all. I hardly dared to believe that I had work. And until we landed in France, I didn’t believe that I would be allowed to travel there and do it.

But arrive I did, and sing I did.

I had imagined it would be incredibly emotional and that I would be moved to tears just to make music with others after so long.

In the event, I was too distracted by such novelties as the etiquette of when and where to wear my mask (concert make-up = smudge); whether I really needed to disinfect my hands at the lift, approximately 3 paces away from the previous disinfection at the entrance to the building (I did. More is more.); and wondering whether the orchestral musicians would mind if I sang to them at first, or whether I should face away.

The funny thing was that it also felt very normal to be on a stage, singing, making music. It’s what I do, it’s where I’m comfortable, and it feels right. I’m one of the lucky ones who’s been given the chance to work again.

My emotions finally got the better of me during the performance, towards the end of the third movement. In fact, they always do – that slow movement just gets me. But as I stood there waiting to sing, and took in the small audience, I was acutely aware of the privilege of being there, and of the beauty and importance of what we do, and I did fight back some tears.

I’m very grateful to Pascal and the ONPL for inviting me (see a link to the performance below), and I hope very much that more and more orchestras and halls can find ways to perform for audiences as much as possible. In the meantime, I look forward to a couple more streamed performances at Wigmore Hall in September and for Oxford Lieder in October, and I have my fingers crossed for our future. 

As a final note, I’d like to acknowledge that I am among a small number of musicians that have been lucky enough to pick up a little bit of work.

May I humbly suggest that if you see an unfamiliar name putting a performance out there on social media, perhaps on their own channel, that you give them a few minutes of your time and have a listen?

There is very little work around right now, and I worry that there will be a generation of relative newcomers that will fall by the wayside. We’re all struggling, and competition is fierce.

Ways to help all musicians are by buying/downloading CDs (rather than streaming), looking for ticketed online performances (meaning hopefully that the musicians receive a small fee), and by donating to charities such as Help Musicians UK (

Watch the performance on YouTube.


Drum roll, please …

It gives me great pleasure to announce that – in fact, it arrived back in March – the first song is already with me!

So, huge thanks to Stephen Hough for opening this project with a wistful-but-warm Fairest Isle.

I’ve been a fan of Stephen’s artistry as a pianist for many years, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t aware until recently that he’s also a prolific composer.

Until I came across ‘Hallowed’.

This piece, for mixed choir, was premiered by The Sixteen and Harry Christophers in March 2018. 

I was immediately drawn to his harmonic language, with its rich textures and wide-set chords, using the full ranges of the voices.

The various texts – from the Old Testament, through Chinese and Navajo poetry, culminate in a moving setting of the Lord’s Prayer.
I can imagine each of us finding our own particular route into Stephen’s compositional output, so do explore for yourself on his website 

My next treat to myself is his ‘Dream Album’, which I’ve just ordered. 

Needless to say, I was delighted when Stephen said he would write me a song. And, given that I’ve asked the composers to aim for a Summer 2021 submission, I was amazed when he emailed in February to say that his piece was at the printers!

It’s incredibly exciting to receive a new piece of music, as yet unperformed. And when I began this commissioning process, I didn’t really know what sort of music I would get.

As I said to the composers:

I am looking for songs that take Purcell as their starting point. I want you to feel free to write your music – I am not asking composers whose work I greatly admire to do a keyboard harmony exercise! – so that could mean anything from keeping the melody and/or bass line, or elements of the harmony or… I don’t know really. My imagination doesn’t work like yours…! I think Britten did a great job of bringing Purcell into the 20th century with his realisations, and I suppose we could think of this as taking it a step further for the 21st Century?

Stephen’s setting of ‘Fairest Isle’ is fresh and thoughtful; it’s use of the keyboard feels to me as though it opens up the song, and its harmony feels generous.

Joseph and I haven’t yet been able to play the song together, but I can’t wait to start absorbing it. It has already been interesting for me to shake myself out of my ‘usual’ way of thinking about these words and this melody.

I realise as I write, that I’m not very good at articulating my responses to music, so I won’t dwell on that sort of thing!

So. Stephen Hough. Pianist, composer… and, of course, author. I’m not going to present a critique of his excellent book ‘Rough Ideas’, but will share with you a sentence from the end of a musing that I found particularly comforting, as someone who recently had a first experience of the extreme stress of performance anxiety:

I don’t think any musician, unlike a trapeze artist, strikes the wires of a piano or draws the bow across a violin’s strings primarily for the kick of an adrenalin fix but if ‘ecstasy’ means to stand outside ourselves, then what better ambition can there be as we stand in the wings of a concert hall than to leave self-obsession behind and take the audience on a journey across the high wire of Beethoven or the flying trapeze of Liszt.

Stephen Hough

So, I will leave the obsessive nature of this project for a few days, and allow you to have a gentle Stephen Hough Obsession.

By the way, his recent Brahms recording is really rather exquisite…