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.