Frauenliebe und Leben: “Der Ring”

Nearly three years ago, I performed Robert Schumann’s stunningly beautiful Frauenliebe und Leben (translated “A Woman’s Life and Love”) for the first time. I say “for the first time” because this is a song cycle that I hope to perform over and over again for the rest of my life; composed to represent key moments in a woman’s life, I anticipate that this song cycle will mature with me.

A recording from our original performance. Such a special time in each of our lives!

The song cycle begins with a young woman who is head-over-heels for a man she doubts even knows she exists. As such, the first song is hopeful but tentative. In the second song, the woman has apparently overcome her anxiety and proclaims the nobility of her beloved to anyone who will listen. In the following movement, we discover that her feelings are returned and she can scarcely believe it.

When I first began practicing this cycle in 2018, I was living in the realm of these first three songs. I was going on dates and dealing with the ups and downs that come with a woman’s early twenties. At the same time, the mezzo-soprano who performed with me was expecting her first child. She managed to sing and act with grace and passion, even as she was experiencing the joyful discomfort of pregnancy. She was living in the late-middle movements of the song cycle, in which the woman is happily married and glowing with expectant motherhood.

I often wonder how each of our interpretations of Frauenliebe und Leben have matured throughout the past two years. I suspect that my playing would be calmer now, more stable and assured in my musicianship and personality. My singer may have a different approach as well, particularly to the later songs, in which the woman sings to her newborn child.

There is an enduring and evolving beauty to this song cycle that has helped me to celebrate, mourn, and hope throughout different seasons of my life. In fact, I believe that often is the key to great art; it is almost inexhaustible in its insight and beauty, maturing with us like fine wine. Now, I am leaning into the fourth movement of Frauenliebe und Leben, “Der Ring,” which has always been my favorite; I have never had the occasion to play it and genuinely understand it, though, for I have never before been engaged.

On Friday, my “beloved and friend” asked me to marry him. Ever since, I have not been able to stop looking at the ring on my finger and marvelling at the Lord’s providence in bringing us together, at my fiancé’s love for me, and at my own jubilant devotion to him. And so, although I have no singer to pronounce its profound German poetry, I wanted to play this song once more with the hands and heart that at last incarnate its theme:

Thou ring upon my finger,
My beautiful ring of gold,
My lips upon thee linger,
And close, this dear treasure, to my heart I hold.

My childhood’s dream had vanish’d,
A joyous dream serene and bright;
Alone I seem’d as if banish’d
To desolate regions of night.

Thou ring upon my finger
Hast giv’n to glad thoughts new birth,
It forbiddest clouds to linger
And transformed to rapture life on earth—

I’ll live for him and near him,
Will always his remain
To serve, to bless, and to cheer him—
His glance of approval to gain.

Thou ring upon my finger,
My beautiful ring of gold,
My lips upon thee linger,
And close, this dear treasure, to my heart I hold!

an approximate translation of the original (and far superior) German text by Adelbert von Chamisso

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