There is a bit of a misconception—a myth, if you will—when it comes to the songs of Hugo Wolf (1860-1903). In 1889, Wolf published the first of several song collections each devoted to the writings of a single poet. In this case that poet was Eduard Mörike, whose name famously appears above Wolf’s own on the original title page. Wolf’s Mörike Lieder helped heighten the renown of the then-deceased poet, and the composer’s supposed act of modesty contributed to his reputation as “the poet’s composer.” One of the most frequently used music history textbooks describes Wolf as representing a “new ideal of equality between words and music” through his methods of “concentrating on one power…and placing the poet’s name above his own.” Wolf, in this telling, was a composer who cared more deeply than others about expressing the poet’s words. In many of his songs the music does, indeed, seem to carefully express the sentiment of the original poem. “Schlafendes Jesuskind” from the Mörike Lieder is one such example. In it the accompaniment, very frequently dense in Wolf’s songs, is stripped to its barest elements. The result is an intensely beautiful setting of Mörike’s poem, itself inspired by a painting of the Christ Child lying asleep on the cross that would someday be the instrument of his death.
When we were assigned the task of crafting recitals based around the theme of Myths & Revelations, I struggled for a while to find a story to tell. The stories of every culture, mythological or otherwise, have long been told by men, and many times do not speak to me or my personal experiences as a female-identifying person. For that reason, my initial fantasy of building a recital around womxn-driven mythology using only female-identifying composers and/or poets quickly became just that – a fantasy for normal circumstances where recitals take months of preparation and a global pandemic doesn’t severely limit access to non-standard repertoire. Because I spent my childhood and adolescence in Catholic school, a particular mythology that weighs on me is the biblical story of Eve. My recital submission featured her very pointedly – her freedom and independence in Eden, her curiosity and her womanhood, and eventually her punishment for daring to explore those things. Eve inspires and intrigues me now because for most of my life I was taught to see her as a villain, whose selfish curiosity created original sin, painful childbirth, and separated humankind from its creator. But as a symbolic figure, she is actually responsible for humankind as we know it: our life and our death, all our beauty, wonder, and complicated flaws spring forth from her decision to value her own autonomy over the promise of paradise. She gave us free will. When beginning the search for repertoire, I thought immediately of Libby Larsen (b. 1950). I have long admired her as one of the most prolific living composers of art song, and I knew she told stories that empowered womxn as both actors and singers. This song spoke to me because it featured a poet I love, and also because it painted a womxn trapped in transition, surrounded by her own amorphous emotional landscape. It evokes Eve, but it also evokes a multitude of other mythological (and real-life) womxn who faced a similar fate where they were banished or silenced for expressing the fullness of their own humanity in a woman’s body. Larsen designs a perfect musical mirror of Dickinson’s vague text; thoughts emerge in fragments, punctuated heavily by the enigma of wordless music and emotion. The words express resolve but the music remains unresolved. That juxtaposition illustrates everything I feel Eve’s myth excludes: womxn deserve for our stories to be complicated, because we are human, and humans are complex. Doubt, then certainty, doubt, then certainty, doubt – our choices perpetuate our evolution as individuals and as a species, and gives us meaning when we face the impermanence of life. “Bind me” isn’t about Eve specifically, nor were many of the other songs I considered for this project. Instead, it uses a first-person narrative to invite the audience to witness a very human thought process play out in real time. I love imagining Dickinson’s ambiguous text and Larsen’s nebulous music through the lens of Eve because so little of Eve’s perspective exists in her own mythology. I imagine her singing this as soon as God banishes her from the Eden, feeling defiant and strong and convicted, while also terrified and determined to find Paradise again. She faces her own mortality while embracing her power. She blends the black and white edges of the world together and decides to paint herself gray. She becomes human. – Anna Schubert