Singing with Myself: Pandemic Virtual Performance & Melissa Dunphy’s June

Singing with Myself: Pandemic Virtual Performance & Melissa Dunphy’s June

Reflections on Melissa Dunphy’s June (2012)

June was presented as part of the recital-film project, I take the long way there. For more information about this program, check out my projects.

My family and friends will tell you that I am something of a Luddite, never acquiring comfortable fluency with my computer, outside of Internet searches, word processing tasks, and copious albums on Google Photos. As I navigated the beginnings of my career as a freelance artist, however, I reluctantly embraced certain means of marketing myself: a YouTube channel and a website, which I created after being told one too many times that I simply “did not exist” without them.

I must admit that after managing both for over eight years and finding some joy in controlling aspects of public self-representation, I still find these online landscapes overwhelming and insecurity-inducing. I will never be able to fully accept the callous and casual rejection of a “thumbs-down” from a total stranger, who may either completely dislike my work (and feel inclined to anonymously tell me so), or who simply wishes to inform an algorithm of their aesthetic preferences.

Woman turning on a radio (1927)
Photo: Library of Congress

I reveled in live performance because, no matter how much I wished to control, mold, influence, and shape the final product, I was always forced to eventually let it go; the performance did not exist outside of a single moment, and whatever versions of ourselves that my collaborators and I performed for a particular audience, they too dissolved.

As stay-at-home orders fell into place, and Peabody Institute shuttered its doors last March, my musical (and daily) life was inundated with new technology. Suddenly, to function in a virtual realm, I researched microphones, microphone stands, audio interfaces, headphones, audio and video editing programs, not to mention learning about Zoom, Cleanfeed, Soundtrap, Audacity, and DaVinci. I also procured a large pile of wires, some of which would clearly connect to certain machines, and others which are still a complete mystery to me. While many performers were already engaged with technology as an innovative means of creating, amplifying, and disseminating art, I, for better or for worse, had not. Overnight, live performances were cancelled, rehearsals became obsolete; all accompaniment tracks were pre-recorded, and in filming ourselves for various projects, lip synching was the necessary order of the day. Not only did I feel uncomfortable handling this technology, but I was inexperienced with acting for film, lip synching, and the most basic audio and video editing skills. To make matters worse, I loathed listening to recordings of myself, especially after years’ worth of emotional baggage from pre-screening tracks that never seemed quite good enough and were often followed by a stock rejection email. 

View from the car of a rainbow in upstate New York (2021)
Photo: Noelle McMurtry

In July of 2020, as I considered whether to continue virtually with the second year of my Doctoral degree or defer, my voice teacher offered a piece of excellent advice, which I found painful to accept at the time. She advised me that, if I chose to return virtually to our Peabody academic and creative lives, I needed to “buy in” to the experience in whatever way I genuinely could; it would be the best and only means of navigating whatever came next. She did not mean that I would disingenuously always enjoy our latency-riddled lessons, or the fact that I still cannot “share my screen” smoothly for a Zoom presentation without feeling the weight of a classroom’s eyes watching me fumble with my trackpad. She challenged me to see what I could make of a virtual performance world, which was simultaneously confining, confusing, but still full of possibility. The hard truth was that I also no longer had the immature luxury of rejecting it outright. 

Premiered in 2012 at the Voice of this Generation and Network for New Music, June is a two-movement work for voice and looper pedal by Philadelphia-based composer Melissa Dunphy (b. 1980) and poet Lauren Rile Smith. As a performer, poet, and founder and producer of Tangle Movement Arts, an all-female aerial dance theater company, Rile Smith describes the interconnected nature of the questions that she explores through her interdisciplinary work as both a poet and aerial artist. These questions often center around queer relationships and “representing bodies… and women and feminism, and what it means to have a body…” [1] In a 2016 interview with Cathy Hannabach for the podcast Imagine Otherwise, Rile Smith details her investment in “depicting female strength and relationships between women…Though this sometimes feels really basic, it also feels deeply essential to us, in part because we live in a world in which relationships between women are underrepresented in media or squashed into stereotypes, even in sometimes places where we would expect to have them made central.”[2]

In June, Rile Smith depicts two distinct visions of the month of June: one in which the protagonist is subsumed by the sweltering room of a house in summer, a veritable “oven” in which the passage of time slows. Surrounded by this sense of stasis, June’s protagonist reflects on what once was, stating, “I go shopping in my own past– those well-worn handles, broken jars, alone with you. Can you let me know, the sound that travels back…” The second poetic segment of June, from which I take the long way there excerpts its title, occurs a year later. The protagonist now finds themselves in nature, contemplating the clouds, trees, and sunset. Time inevitably rushes on, and the cycles of life and death continue. They observe, “The rush of days don’t care about your heart… Where were your words? Now, I am: soundless, happy, another pin on the trestle, spoke on the wheel.”

Hiking in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia (2021)
Photo: Noelle McMurtry

In interpreting June, I was drawn to its depiction of these two very distinct states of being, both of which I have experienced over the past year of pandemic life: feelings of monotony, stagnation, powerlessness, deep sadness, a nostalgia for some sort of past self, as well as the grateful escape into nature with my partner and dog, hiking paths together, taking a multitude of walks, and marking time by looking out my window, all of which I took for granted previously.

While June was originally conceived for voice and looper pedal, for the purposes of I take the long way there, I created this rendering of June via looping with myself on Soundtrap, a multi-tracking audio recording platform, which I learned to use over this past year. Musically, June represents one of my attempts at “buying in” to a virtual performance life. It also flatly broke me of my pessimistic inability to listen to my own recorded voice, since I spent hours considering loops upon loops of myself. Ultimately, June serves as the first opportunity I have ever had to sing with myself.

Watch

June by Melissa Dunphy
Movement i
Movement ii

Notes

  1. Cathy Hannabach, “Imagine Otherwise: Lauren Rile Smith on Feminist Circus Art,” Ideas on Fire, March 9, 2016, https://ideasonfire.net/5-lauren-rile-smith/.
  2. Hannabach, “Imagine Otherwise.”
  3. Melissa Dunphy, “June,” bandcamp, https://melissadunphy.bandcamp.com/album/june.
“one heart and one soul”: The Songs of Clara and Robert Schumann

“one heart and one soul”: The Songs of Clara and Robert Schumann

Reflections on Zwölf Gedichte aus F. Rückerts Liebesfrühling von Robert und Clara Schumann (1841)

German Romantics: Clara was featured on the film-recital project, I take the long way there. For more information about the repertoire on this program, check out my projects.

Clara Schumann (1819-1896)

Clara Schumann (1857)
Photo: Franz Hanfstaengl (1804–1877) 

Clara Schumann, a German Romantic-era pianist, composer, and piano pedagogue, was a celebrated virtuoso. From the age of eleven, she managed a 61-year concert career, touring throughout Europe. Her success as a concert artist secured essential income for her eight children and husband, the renowned composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856). She began composing as a child, and her compositions later included solo piano pieces, chamber music, choral works, and Lieder.

At the age of thirteen, Clara began to compose one of her most famous works, Piano Concerto in A minor, which she later premiered in Leipzig with composer Felix Mendelssohn as conductor. Due to her touring schedule, the management of her large household, and her own personal hesitancy towards composition, Clara’s output was often sporadic.

In her diaries, Clara expressed intense self-doubt about her compositional abilities, internalizing nineteenth-century socio-cultural prejudices against women as composers. She wrote in 1839, “I once believed that I had creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not wish to compose – there never was one able to do it. Am I intended to be the one? It would be arrogant to believe that.” [1] After Robert’s death in 1856, Clara composed only two other pieces and turned her energy to performing, teaching, and caring for her children.

Throughout their marriage, Zwölf Gedichte aus F. Rückerts Liebesfrühling von Robert und Clara Schumann constitutes the only explicit compositional collaboration between the Schumanns. The collection includes nine songs by Robert and three by Clara, listed under the joint opus numbers op. 37/12. Throughout a protracted legal battle with Clara’s father, Friederich Wieck, over her hand in marriage and control of Clara’s finances, Robert continually expressed his desire to compose with his fiancée.

In 1839, he wrote to her that “we shall publish a good deal under both our names; posterity shall regard us as one heart and one soul and not find out what is yours and what is mine.”[2] In 1841, at the publication of the first edition of Zwölf Gedichte aus F. Rückerts Liebesfrühling, Robert purposefully instructed the songs to be published without identifying which “belonged” to each composer, further cementing his desire that the Schumanns were united in all things, including their aesthetic sensibilities. In fact, without prior knowledge, it was nearly impossible for nineteenth-century critics, performers, and audiences to discern who had specifically composed what, since Robert and Clara’s harmonic and motivic choices within Zwölf Gedichte complemented each other seamlessly. 

Clara and Robert Schumann (c. 1850)
Photo: Corbis, via Getty Images
Friederich Rückert; 19th Century Carte de visite after a drawing by B. Semptner

For poetic texts, Robert chose selections from Liebesfrühling, a collection of four hundred poems written by Friederich Rückert (1788-1866) during the courtship of his wife. Not only was Rückert one of Robert’s favorite poets, but the poetry itself was an apt choice for the newly married couple. In Liebesfrühling, Rückert crafted his poetry from two distinct perspectives: the voice of the poet (a male protagonist) and the voice of his Geliebte, or beloved (a female protagonist). After excerpting a set of Rückert poems for the joint project, Robert asked Clara to set five of the texts.

In January of 1841, Robert had composed nine Rückert songs in a flurry of compositional activity. By May of that year, Clara still struggled to compose her selections, writing in their shared diary, “With composition nothing at all is happening — sometimes I’d like to knock myself on my dumb head!” [3] However, weeks later, Clara finished four of her Rückert settings: “Warum willst du and’re fragen,” “Er ist gekommen,” “Liebst du um Schönheit,” and “Die gute Nacht.” She gifted the song set to Robert as a birthday gift, who then ordered the songs for publication, ultimately removing Clara’s “Die gute Nacht” from the collection. After offering their shared endeavor to the publisher Breitkopf & Härtel, Robert presented Clara with the newly published volumes, divided into two sets of six songs, each concluding with a duet, as her surprise birthday gift.

While Robert and Clara may have originally intended Zwölf Gedichte aus F. Rückerts Liebesfrühling von Robert und Clara Schumann to function as a musical dialogue between two performers, embodying a couple as they explore the many facets of their romantic bond through song, the collection is rarely performed as such. Instead, songs are often excerpted by composer with Clara’s set of three songs performed separately, an interpretive decision that we also followed in I take the long way there.

In examining Clara Schumann’s Op. 12, the collection consists of three songs: “Er ist gekommen,” “Liebst du um Schönheit,” and “Warum willst du and’re fragen.” “Er ist gekommen” compares the arrival of the beloved to a stormy deluge, which furiously sweeps into the protagonist’s life, leaving them to wonder, “How could I foresee that his path would merge with mine?” As the storm calms and spring returns, the beloved sets off on their path once more. The protagonist, however, does not fear their absence because “he remains mine on any path.” In “Liebst du um Schönheit,” the protagonist pleads with their beloved to love truly and freely, rejecting the false values of beauty, youth, and wealth. In the final song of Op. 12, “Warum willst du and’re fragen,” the protagonist questions why their beloved believes the “fancies” of strangers over the truth and constancy genuinely expressed through their eyes. The protagonist has a simple request: “Whatever my lips say, see my eyes – I love you!” 

Image: Elizabeth Van Os

In collaboration with NYC-based The Pleiades Project, I take the long way there reconceptualizes the three Lieder of Clara Schumann’s Op. 12 in German Romantics: Clara, which also represents the first film project I have ever co-created. While these songs may have marked the beginning of Clara and Robert’s union, our protagonist navigates Op. 12 as she copes with the end of an important relationship.

In coming to terms with the conclusion of this chapter in her life, our protagonist’s imagination travels to vibrant fantasy worlds. She engages with a series of invented historical personas, combining her contemporary self with illusory traces of past women’s lives. In becoming the heroine of her own story, our protagonist achieves a sense of closure, reapproaching her present circumstances with curiosity and a cautious hope for future possibilities.

Watch

Notes

  1. Nancy Reich, Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001), 216.
  2. Rufus Hallmark, “The Rückert Lieder of Robert and Clara Schumann,” 19th-Century Music 14, no. 1 (Summer, 1990): 4, https://www.jstor.org/stable/746673.   
  3. Hallmark, “The Rückert Lieder,” 7.
«… und, wo ist Fanny?»

«… und, wo ist Fanny?»

Reflections on Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s Sechs Lieder, Op. 1 (1846)

Fanny Mendelssohn’s Sechs Lieder, Op. 1 was programmed on The little ghost for The Cantanti Project’s Project 4. For more information about this program, check out my projects.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847)

In February of 1847, Fanny Mendelssohn wrote in her diary,

I cannot deny that the joy in publishing my music has elevated my positive mood . . . it is truly stimulating to experience this type of success first at an age by which it has usually ended for women, if indeed they ever experience it. [1]

Fanny’s allusion to “this type of success” centered on the long-awaited publication of her compositions under her own name, a project which she had undertaken for the first time in her life in 1846.

At the age of forty-one, the publication of Sechs Lieder, Op. 1 and Vier Lieder for piano, Op. 2 marked her public arrival as a recognized composer. Before 1846, the only musical works of Fanny’s that had been made public were several Lieder, published under her brother’s name in his own collections of songs.

Portrait of Fanny Hensel (1842) by Mortiz Daniel Oppenheim (1800-1882); The Jewish Museum, New York

She was far from a stranger, however, to the field of musical composition, an expertise that she had passionately honed since the age of thirteen. Born into an eminent German family, Fanny received a robust education, both musical and academic, alongside her brother, who would later become the famed composer and conductor Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). From an early age, Fanny was acknowledged to be a virtuoso pianist and talented composer. However, her father, Abraham Ernst Mendelssohn Bartholdy, deemed it inappropriate and “unfeminine” for Fanny to pursue a professional career in music.

In 1821, her marriage to court painter Wilhelm Hensel solidified Fanny’s primary occupation as a homemaker, wife, and mother. Despite these familial and societal expectations, she maintained a profound connection to music throughout her life, albeit in the private sphere. Fanny composed more than 450 works, advised Felix on his compositions, and hosted Sonntagsmusiken, or musical salons, on Sundays in her Berlin home. Fanny’s music often premiered at these events, which were frequented by the European cultural and musical elite of the day.

Fanny Mendelssohn, sketched in 1829 by her husband Wilhelm Hensel (1794-1861)
With Fanny at the Mendelssohn Haus, Leipzig (2019)
Photo: Caroline Miller
“…and where is Fanny?” from the Fanny Mendelssohn Exhibit at Mendelssohn Haus, Leipzig
Photo: Caroline Miller

Fanny cherished an intimate, life-long friendship with Felix, who privately relied upon his sister’s opinions to develop his own compositions, while he maintained stubborn reservations about her entering the public sphere as a composer. Fanny often questioned her own abilities, internalizing the prejudices that were used to demean and diminish her ambition. In writing to a friend about her piece Faust in 1843, she wrote,

Please excuse and censure all the amateurish female snags within; a dilettante is a dreadful creature, a female author even more so, but when the two are joined into one person, of course the most dreadful being of all results. At least so far I have abstained from the printer’s ink; if someone suffers, it is my friends, and why is one in this world if not to be suffered by one’s friends? [2]

To experience Sechs Lieder, Op. 1 in this context, one sees that its publication was truly a personal triumph for Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, who did not “abstain from the printer’s ink” as she had been advised to do all her life. Although she passed away suddenly from a stroke in 1847 after having published her work for only a year prior, she remains an influential and prolific artist of her era, overcoming the pain of self-doubt and the debilitating consequences of nineteenth-century gender stereotypes.

Listen

Morgenständchen, from Sechs Lieder, Op. 1
Joseph Yungen, piano

Morgenständchen

In den Wipfeln frische Lüfte,

Fern melod’scher Quellen Fall

Durch die Einsamkeit der Klüfte,

Waldeslaut und Vogelschall.

Scheuer Träume Speilgenossen

Steigen all beim Morgenschein,

Auf des Weinlaubs schwanken Sprossen

Dir zum Fenster aus und ein.

Und wir nah’n noch halb in Träumen

Und wir tun in Klängen kund

Was da draußen in den Bäumen

Singt der weite Frühlingsgrund.

Regt der Tag erst laug die Schwingen

Sind wir Alle wieder weit

Aber tief im Herzen klingen

Lange nach noch Lust und Leid.

Text by Josef Karl Benedikt von Eichendorff (1788-1857)

Morning Serenade

Fresh breezes in the treetops

A distant, melodious spring’s descent

Through the solitude of the ravine

Forest sounds and birdcalls.

Timid dream’s playmates

All rise with the morning light,

From the grapevine’s swaying buds

In and out, to you at your window.

And we draw near, still half dreaming

And we make known in sound

That which outside in the trees

The wide spring valley sings.

Once the day loudly moves its wings

We are again far removed

But deep in our hearts resound

Pleasure and pain long afterwards.

Translation by Bard Suverkrop; additions by Noelle McMurtry

Notes

  1. Larry R. Todd, Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 334.
  2. Todd, Fanny Hensel, 294.

The Myth of Semele: A Woman on Fire

The Myth of Semele: A Woman on Fire

Reflections on Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre’s Semelé (1715)

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre’s Semelé was performed as part of Portraits: The Self Illuminated. For more information about the program, check out my projects.

The Myth of Semele

Although various versions of the myth of Semele exist, they follow a similar narrative trajectory: Semele was a Theban princess. One day, she encountered the god Jupiter, who instantly fell in love with her. Since Semele is characterized as the object of Jupiter’s desire, her initial feelings are rarely elucidated. When Jupiter’s wife, Juno, learned of their relationship, she schemed to punish Semele. Juno disguised herself as Semele’s nurse, Beroë. Believing her nurse to be a friend and confidant, Semele confessed that Jupiter, the ruler of the Olympian gods, was her lover. Beroë questioned Jupiter’s honesty – was he truly immortal and so powerful? With these seeds of doubt planted in Semele’s mind, she asked Jupiter for a favor. Swearing on the River Styx, he promised to grant any request that Semele asked of him. Semele demanded that Jupiter reveal himself in his immortal glory to prove that he was truly a god. Jupiter pleaded with her to take back her request, but Semele insisted. Bound to his oath, Jupiter revealed himself as immense clouds, thunder, and lightning. Semele, a mortal, could not endure the heat’s intensity, and she was tragically immolated by Jupiter’s bolts.

Although the anonymous author of the libretto set by Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729) ends Semele’s tale here, her mythological narrative continues. At the exact moment of Semele’s lethal request, she is also pregnant. As flames engulf her, Jupiter saves their unborn child, “sewing” the fetus into his thigh. After Semele’s death and descent into the underworld, the baby is born, and he becomes Dionysus, the god of wine, theater, and fertility. Later, Dionysus rescues his mother from Hades, and Semele becomes immortal as Thyone, the goddess who resides over Dionysus’ court on Mount Olympus.

The anonymous librettist of de La Guerre’s Semelé, however, freezes Semele’s “portrait” at the precise moment of her death, followed by an air, or aria, with a pointed moralistic tone. The librettist writes, “When Love enchains us…let us not mix with his fire/ The desire of vainglory… It is in a tender bond/ That one finds the greatest happiness;/ Glamour, supreme grandeur/ Should count for nothing.” [1] Despite her manipulation by Juno and the inexplicable fact that Jupiter, the greatest god in all the universe, cannot transcend an oath of his own making, we are led to believe that Semele is at fault for her own demise. Semelé’s narrator claims that her mortal vanity, evident in her desire to prove that she was loved by an all-powerful god, is truly her undoing. If Semele had been privately satisfied with the love of Jupiter and unquestioning in her faithfulness, she may have survived.

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729)

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre by François de Troy (1645–1730), late 17th/early 18th Century
Engraving by Juan Dolivar of the 1685 production of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Roland, tragédie en musique at Versailles National Art Library, Paris

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the tendency to conclude with a “moral” lesson was common in French cantatas. Airs often reflected upon past events or shed light on the specific emotion of a character within the drama. Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre published Semelé, dedicated to the Elector of Bavaria, in 1715, as part of her collection of secular cantatas. Semelé is an extension of the seventeenth-century Italian “‘cantata,’” meaning “‘sung,’” a genre that designated a piece of music written for voice(s) and accompanying instruments (basse continue). By de La Guerre’s time, cantatas were often comprised of several movements, alternating between recitative passages and arias, marked by tempo and key changes. Cantatas were performed at Versailles and other royal residences, as well as in salon concerts at the homes of French nobles. De La Guerre navigated the complex power dynamic between nobility and the artist class throughout her lifetime. Educated in Louis XIV’s court as a child, de La Guerre learned to sing, compose, and play the organ and harpsichord.

At 15 years old, she was placed in the retinue of Madame de Montespan, a patron of the arts and mistress of the king, who socialized with leading intellectual and cultural figures of the day, such as Racine and Quinault. [2] In 1684, de La Guerre left the service of the court due to her marriage to organist Marin de La Guerre. She continued to compose, perform, and publish as a freelance musician, seeking financial support through noble patronage.

Throughout her career, de La Guerre published under her own name in a variety of genres, including sacred vocal music, instrumental works, ballet, and opera, or tragédie en musique. She is credited with composing the first opera written by a woman in France, Céphale et Procris. [3]

Portraits of Semele

I have chosen three images to depict Semele, creating a portrait-timeline that culminates in this tragic and deeply unjust moment in her story. The first is the work of Jan-Erasmus Quellinus (1634-1715), a Flemish painter from a family of famous artists, who specialized in history and portrait painting. Jupiter, Semele, und Juno depicts Jupiter’s pursuit of Semele, as Juno peers from the clouds above. Cupids, nestled in the left-hand corner of the work, point to the couple, as if to reveal their relationship. Jupiter’s body language is ominous and overpowering, while Semele appears to run from him. Our second image was painted by Pietro della Vecchia (1603-1678), a Venetian painter, who painted in a variety of genres, such as altar pieces and portraits. Jupiter and Semele depicts the violent instant when Jupiter reveals to Semele the extent of his immortal powers. Semele’s face is frozen in fear and pain while Jupiter’s lightning bolts rise above her. The image is disturbing, especially due to Jupiter’s imposing form, which aggressively looms over Semele’s reclined body.

Our last image is Semele by John Duncan (1866-1945), a Scottish painter and illustrator, best known as a proponent of the Celtic Revival in Scottish art. It depicts the titular figure in death, consumed by flames. It is important to note, however, that in this portrait, Semele is finally depicted as an individual. In my research, I often found it common to find images of Semele in relation to Jupiter: in a state of sexual rapture beside him, being pursued by him, or being killed by him. Rarely did I find Semele depicted as a person, an individual, alone. Duncan’s image is powerful in that Semele does not appear to be in pain, but rather illuminated. The flames do not harm her body but seem to expand her presence. Although Duncan’s portrait still represents her demise, I find Semele’s stare unsettling, as if to assert: I will not be consumed.

Watch

Semelé by Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre
Paula Maust, harpsichord
Christian Paquette, Baroque flute
Theodore Welke, theorbo

i.     Simphonie
ii.    Recitatif – Jupiter avoit fait un indiscret serment
iii.   Air – Ne peut-on vivre en tes liens
iv.   Prélude Bruit
v.    Recitatif – Mais, quel bruit étonnant se répand
vi.   Simphonie
vii.  Air – Quel triomphe, quelle victoire
viii. Bruit
ix.   Recitatif – Ah ! quel embrasement tout à coup m’épouvante
x.    Dernier Air – Lorsque l’Amour nous enchaisne

Notes

  1. Mary Cyr, “Introduction.” In The Collected Works – Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre. New York: Broude Trust, 2005, 13-15.
  2. Rebecca Cypess, Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 2019. Accessed on November 24, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Elisabeth-Claude-Jacquet-de-la-Guerre.
  3. Cyr, “Texts and Translations.” In The Collected Works – Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, 39.
An Ancient Poet Speaks: Finding the Voice of Sulpicia

An Ancient Poet Speaks: Finding the Voice of Sulpicia

Reflections on Jessica Krash’s Sulpicia’s Songs (2015)

Sulpicia’s Songs was featured on the film-recital project, I take the long way there. For more information about the repertoire on this program, check out my projects.

“And of course, Sulpicia won – here we are, 2,000 years later, hearing her words and thinking about her!”

Jessica Krash

Sulpicia (c. 40 BCE – date of death unknown)

Woman with Stylus (“Sappho”), c. 50 CE
Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Naples, Italy

Born c. 40 BCE, Sulpicia was a noblewoman, who lived during the Augustan Age of the Roman Empire. As the legal ward of her uncle Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus (64 BCE – 8 CE), a military commander to Emperor Augustus and patron of an eminent literary salon, which included the famed elegiac poet Albius Tibullus (c. 55 BCE – c .19 BCE), scholars believe that Sulpicia was literate and well-educated. Corpus Tibullianum, a renowned collection of Latin poetry, may have been deliberately assembled to represent the literary works of the poetry salon under Messalla’s patronage. Divided into four books, Books I and II of the Corpus consist entirely of love elegies attributed to the poet Tibullus. 

The Augustan love elegy was composed of couplets of hexameter and pentameter, or groups of six and five poetic feet. As a Latin poetic form, the Augustan elegy was deeply indebted to the poet Catullus (c. 84 BCE – c. 54 BCE), who filled his verses with personal observation and emotion. He embraced the idea of a “subjective” poetic narrator, in which the poet writes from their own perspective about love, relationships, and desire, employing pseudonyms for their real, and sometimes imagined, love interests.

In Corpus Tibullianum’s third book, six love elegies are attributed to Sulpicia as author and poet. She details a clandestine romantic relationship with Cerinthus, her lover under pseudonym, and she boldly expresses her desire throughout the myriad turns of their relationship, which may have been upended by a difference in social rank within Roman society.  As we meet Sulpicia for the first time, she prays to Venus to “gift” her the perfect lover: Cerinthus. She claims, perhaps naively, that with the god’s blessing, they will be forever united. Triumphantly, Sulpicia longs to tell the world of her love, writing, “How I’d hate to keep what I’ve written under seal where none could read me sooner than Cerinthus.” [1] In the second elegy, with her prayers now answered, Sulpicia becomes furious with her Uncle Messalla for organizing a household trip to his country estate on her birthday. She vents that her celebration will be ruined without Cerinthus, who remains in Rome.

In the third elegy, with a sudden reversal of fortune, Sulpicia is permitted to remain in the city for her birthday. She plans to celebrate with Cerinthus, who, once skeptical of their relationship, should now be assured of her devotion. The fourth elegy marks dissolution: Sulpicia and Cerinthus’ relationship has ended. As she bitterly observes him with another, Sulpicia’s wounded pride and classist prejudice overwhelm her. By the fifth elegy, we are left to wonder: has the couple reunited? Sulpicia is now sick with fever, and she waits to hear from Cerinthus, interpreting his silence as lack of interest. At the sixth and final elegy, Sulpicia meets Cerinthus secretly once again, but ultimately departs, “favoring as I did that once to hide my own fire.” [2] Sulpicia worries that, by guarding her own emotions and desires, she has forfeited her relationship. In this moment, Sulpicia’s six love elegies conclude abruptly, leaving the audience to imagine the couple’s fate. Sulpicia’s date of death is unknown, and after the publication of the Corpus Tibullianum, she completely disappears from the historical archive.  

In her seven-song cycle Sulpicia’s Songs (2015) for voice and piano, composer Jessica Krash sets to music modern English translations of Sulpicia’s Augustan love elegies by writer, translator, and scholar Mary Maxwell. In constructing a seventh song with text from Sulpicia’s first elegy to conclude the overall cycle, Krash and Maxwell arguably engage in an act of reclamation, envisioning a musical resolution to Sulpicia’s story, one in which she and Cerinthus find some semblance of happiness together. As a personal, interpretive gesture in retaining the historical ambiguity of Sulpicia’s “end,” I take the long way there excerpts six of the cycle’s seven songs in their original order. Through film, we imagine each of Sulpicia’s elegies as a portrait, preserved within its historical frame, yet also as a living representation.

Flora (Women with Flowers), from the Villa of Arianna at Stabia, Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Naples, Italy
Women Reclining (c. 1-79 CE), from the Villa of Arianna at Stabia, Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Naples, Italy
Women Painting (c. 55-79 CE), from the House of the Surgeon at Pompeii, Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Naples, Italy

As visual inspiration, we gathered images of Roman noblewomen, collected by the National Archeological Museum of Naples, from various Roman frescoes in Pompeii, Italy. They depict a host of activities: women gathering with one another, writing with stylus and tablet, painting, preparing their toilette, and gathering flowers. While these frescoes were constructed over a century after Sulpicia’s lifetime, the images still provide a fascinating visual context in which to imagine our protagonist and her environment, especially since no single artefact of Sulpicia’s likeness has survived.

Woman Looking in Mirror, from the Villa of Arianna at Stabia, Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Naples, Italy

The story of Sulpicia, however, does not end on the papyrus scrolls of the Corpus Tibullianum. From the sixteenth century until the present day, criticism of Sulpicia’s verses within the field of Classical studies has attempted to negate her contributions as author and poet. Wielding a gamut of gendered arguments, critics claim that her poetry was conceived by a male author in her uncle’s circle, or allege that, if a Roman female author indeed created the poems, they remain amateur in construction and expression. Since the 1980’s, however, Classical feminist critique has wholly rejected the erasure of Sulpicia’s authorial voice through research and analysis into the literary output of women in ancient Rome. To this day, Sulpicia’s six love elegies remain the only extant examples of Roman Latin poetry by a female author. 

Sulpicia’s Songs envisions an embodied Sulpicia, manifesting the joys and sorrows of her romantic life. Through her own words, Sulpicia’s voice occupies a liminal space between antiquity and our present world. As song cycle, Sulpicia’s Songs operates as a vital contribution in support of feminist critical attempts to reclaim Sulpicia’s personhood, as it textually and musically reframes and performs her first century poetic voice through the perspectives of twenty-first century creative women as translator, composer, and performer.

Watch

Sulpicia’s Songs by Jessica Krash
Eric Sedgwick, piano

i. At last, it’s come
ii. The hated birthday approaches
iii. Did you hear?
iv. I’m grateful
v. Fever
vi. No longer care for me
vii. Let it be known! (piano only)

Notes

  1. Mary Maxwell, Latin Lyric and Elegiac Poetry: An Anthology of New Translations (New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1995), 83-87.
  2. Maxwell, Latin Lyric and Elegiac Poetry, 83-87.