Reading Music through Different Lenses
A Review and Commentary on Karen Bottge’s, “Brahms’s ‘Wiegenlied’ and the Maternal Voice,” 19th-Century Music XXVIII:185-213, n3, 2005.
Karen Bottge’s article, “Brahms’s Wiegenlied and the Maternal Voice,” opens on such a familiar note and in such a low key fashion that not until midway do we realize we are in the midst of a profound essay that both engages and challenges our reflexive beliefs. The seemingly limited scope of Brahms’s “Wiegenlied,” Op. 49, No. 4 (1868) — that perennially popular lullaby still taught in grade schools across the world — turns out to be susceptible to a myriad of lenses that take us beyond straightforward lyricism to broad connections with cultural, historical, philosophical, social, and psychological perspectives.1 In the process Bottge offers up fresh twenty-first century paradigms for the most familiar Romantic music.
These connections run seamlessly throughout the essay. At the outset the author undertakes a thorough examination of various aspects of the maternal voice and image, especially the dyadic relationship between mother and child. The discussion borrows freely from methodologically disparate yet ultimately integrated sources, beginning with Marianne Hitschmann-Steinberger’s etching entitled “Brahms: Cradle Song” that demonstrates “the most sentimentalized of adult reconstructions of childhood” (and that has lived on in countless illustrations).2 It also draws from Friedrich Kitler’s theory of the Mother, one that “emerges during the nineteenth century as a powerful agent of socialization, acculturation and transmission in German- speaking Europe.”3 The author takes the discussion deeper by applying Lacanian imagery,4 J. A. P. Schulz’s aesthetic ideal of the Volkstumliches Lied,5 Freud’s psychological analysis of mother-son bond, and Paul Verhaeghe’s “inside” and “outside” psychoanalytic views.6 These multifaceted perspectives shed fresh light on nineteenth-century German culture and society.
The author’s expertise as both pianist, theorist, and German philologist contribute greatly to her uncanny ability to bring so many strands of thought together. Her description of the surface characteristics of Brahms’ lullaby is succinct and discerning: “[i]ts back-and-forth harmonic movement over an immobile pedal imitates the phenomenal sensation of rocking, and its interlocking syncopations support and interact with the emotive declamation of the singer’s voice.”7 Her linking of Alexander Baumann’s “S’is Anderscht” to Brahms’ “Wiegenlied” — on the surface only incidentally related — is both engaging and compelling. Taking her cue from the Volkston movement embodied by Baumann, she illustrates how the sudden move from the innocent flirtatiousness of the girl to the dark threat of “de-flowering” from her presumed object of conquest presents a striking parallel with Brahms’s lullaby.8 The supportive evidence encompasses both a voice-leading sketch (illustrating the magnitude of the textural break between innocence and awareness) and the complex evolution of yodeling as a “retreat from the symbolic order . . . a regressive fantasy of being at one with the mother.”9 Bottge understands these moments as paradoxes: “jouissance” connotes both oneness and separation, presence and absence, pleasure and pain.
The connections to “S’is Anderscht” turn out to revolve around more than parallel content. Bottge points to how Brahms first heard Bertha Porubsky sing the song in 1858, and then a decade later wrote his Wiegenlied to commemorate the birth of Porubsky’s second son. In the letter announcing his gift he refers specifically to the “said love song” that still “buzzes in my ear. . .”10 This linking of actual biography with stylistic influence creates a powerful web in which each of Bottge’s multiple perspectives contributes to the even greater strength of her combined arguments.
Toward the end of her study the author painstakingly applies Heinrich Schenker’s metaphor of procreation and parturition to extend “in both the vertical and horizontal dimensions” our understanding of Brahms’s lullaby.11 She invokes A. J. Greimas and Francois Rastier’s semiotic model to offer a hermeneutic re-reading of the poem, and she critiques Adorno’s description of Brahms’s lullaby to provide an alternative interpretation in which the “blanket of sound” is transferred to “bed curtains” (as persuasive as it is unlikely).12
If there is a shortcoming for some readers in Bottge’s paper, it might be in the very exhaustiveness with which she carries out her multi-pronged exploration. For example, those who wish to receive direct illumination about the Wiegenlied—the ostensible focus suggested by the title—will first have to work their way through more than half of the essay (which addresses social, philosophical, cultural, and psychological dimensions) before the lullaby takes center stage. Those who find the theories of Jacques Lacan intimidating will have to confront him on two separate, widely-spaced occasions.13
On the other hand, the very methodological virtuosity of the article could serve as a model for everyone from music majors to serious scholars. I can think of few studies (whether article- or book-length) that demonstrate so richly the ways in which seemingly unrelated and disparate disciplines contribute with such power to a single, underlying theme.
I wish to close with two of the many quotes that particularly elicited my attention and, it seems to me, point to larger truths. The first requires considerable internal parsing:
“The ‘inside’ is the result of an incorporation of the pleasurable parts of the outside, and the „outside’ is the result of an expulsion of what was considered unpleasurable at the inside. In addition, the real outside is what is unknown in terms of pleasure and unpleasure, and so it simply does not exist for the organism. Thus, the inside is a pleasurable outside, the outside is an unpleasurable inside, and the outside as such is not recognized.”14
The second is more straightforward:
“It is this archaic moment, this stage of developing subjectivity that informs Brahms’s „Wiegenlied’ and can inform our understanding of it. This music recovers that mythical moment of our past and allows us as listeners to re-experience the lost dyadic relationship with the mother.”15
Both passages are in equal parts informative, inspiring, and thought provoking. One might consider them as not merely layers of meaning embedded in the simple lyrics and musical structure but new truths about the nature of love that afford us an opportunity to re-examine our own feelings. We are often led to think that the converse side of love is hate. But after digesting this essay it may seem that the other side of genuine love is not hate but fear—fear of losing, of changing, and of separation. That these fears are in the course of human development always inevitably makes them in some reassuring sense less to be feared. In the act of unearthing what may seem to many the darker sides of the maternal bond, Bottge unveils the beauty (some of which is encapsulated in paradox) of the human journey.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson we can learn from this essay is that we do not need to look far for any profound and universal truth, for it often exists next to us, simply and plainly, just as the Brahms Lullaby with which we are so familiar. All it takes to find it is a sensitive and conscientious heart and mind. It is not often that humanistic scholarship of any kind can prove both so historically and personally revealing.
1 In many Asian countries, such as China, Japan, and Korea, accessible Western art songs were (and are) routinely part of school teaching materials (i.e. the official curriculum provided by the government). Brahms’ Lullaby definitely counts as one of these iconic songs, still taught mandatorily in public schools.
2 Karen Bottge, “Brahms’s Wiegenlied and the Maternal Voice,” 19th-Century Music, XXVIII:185-86, n3, 2005.
3 Ibid., p. 186.
4 Ibid., p. 191.
6Ibid., pp. 198, 188.
7 Ibid., p. 185.
8 Ibid., pp. 191-202.
9 Ibid., pp. 197, 198.
10 Ibid., p. 199.
11 Ibid., p. 203.
12 Ibid., pp. 207-11.
13 Ibid., pp. 189, 197.
14 Quoted in Bottge, p. 188. [Paul Verhaeghe, “Causation and Destitution of a Preontological Non-entity: On the Lacanian Subject,” Key Concepts of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, ed. Dany Nobus (New York: Other Press, 1999), p. 174.]
15 Ibid., p. 198. Other insightful discussions are on pp. 190- 92, regarding culture and music style, piano and performance practice, and lyrics and poem.