What Does Narrative Have To Do with Song? An Author’s Journey 

Guest post written by Andrew H. Weaver, author of Narrative and Robert Schumann’s Songs.

If you had told me when I started graduate school that I would someday write a book about songs, I wouldn’t have believed you. My musical upbringing was as an instrumentalist: I learned viola from a young age and went to college to pursue a degree in viola performance. When I was lured by the siren call of musicology, it was the Renaissance that seduced me. I entered Yale in 1997 intent on writing a dissertation on early music. 

Although I did write that early music dissertation and continue to research the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, several formative experiences my first year at Yale stuck with me. My first semester I took a seminar on Romantic aesthetics with Leon Plantinga, as well as a seminar on Strauss’s tone poems with James Hepokoski, in which I was enthralled by issues of narrative. Then came my second semester, when I took a seminar with Kristina Muxfeldt on cyclic forms in nineteenth-century music, a wide-ranging course that covered everything from string quartets and symphonies to song cycles. In this course I listened for the first time to the canonical cycles by Schubert and Schumann in their entirety, and I immediately fell in love—so much so that by August a new classmate took one look at my CD collection and commented on my love for Lieder! 

The late 1990s were a heady time for narrative theory—copies of Gerard Genette’s Narrative Discourse were never on the library shelves, and the book would be recalled the second I got my hands on it—and musicology was no exception. I devoured the current work on music and narrative, and for Prof. Muxfeldt’s course I wrote a ridiculously ambitious paper making sweeping claims about what it means when song cycles end by recalling music from earlier songs. Despite the paper’s problems, I knew there was something to my argument about Schumann’s Dichterliebe. But as much as I wanted to do more, the Habsburgs were calling, so I set it aside to write a dissertation on politics and music in mid-seventeenth-century Vienna. 

But I never let it go. I continued to digest the latest research on Schumann’s songs—David Ferris’s book on the Eichendorff Liederkreis (2000), Beate Julia Perrey’s book on Dichterliebe (2002), Berthold Hoeckner’s articles on the Heine Liederkreis (2001) and Dichterliebe (2006)—and more importantly, I brought my ideas to the classroom. From my first year as a faculty member, I made the Romantic song cycle a centerpiece of my teaching, sharing my ideas about Dichterliebe in both graduate and undergraduate courses. And as soon as my first book on the Habsburgs was drafted, I dove into narratology, determined to bring my ideas to the world. 

My first public presentations about Dichterliebe occurred in 2011–12. At that point, I was focusing solely on Dichterliebe and didn’t know whether there was anything beyond that. But in June 2013, as I was reading narrative theory while vacationing at the beach with my family (as one does!), I had a late-night epiphany and sketched the outline of what would become my first article on narrativity and the Lied, focused not on cycles but on individual songs. 

Which brings me to the title of this article: what does narrative have to do with song, anyway? At first, like many people, I associated it solely with works that obviously told a story, like Dichterliebe or ballads like Schubert’s “Erlkönig.” But the more I dug into narratology, the more I realized that performing any song is analogous to telling a story: unlike in an opera, where a singer becomes a character accompanied by a hidden orchestra, in a song performance, the singer and pianist stand before us as themselves. Although the singer of a song often takes on the role of a character, that role is nevertheless subsumed into a larger narrative frame created by the performance setting. Understanding that frame can unlock interpretive keys and help us understand puzzling or inexplicable moments in the music. 

My book barely scratches the surface in that it focuses solely on Robert Schumann’s Lieder, so I of course hope it will spur more people to think about song in a new way and expand my theories. But even more, my deepest wish is that my book will help performers think critically about their engagement with song, not only how they interpret songs musically but also how they comport themselves on stage and how they can use their role as narrator to communicate effectively with the audience. 

ANDREW H. WEAVER is Professor of Musicology at The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC. 

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