Living Lieder

Living Lieder

Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan, der aber traf.

I owe a much belated debt of gratitude to my college vocal coach, Oksana.

When I was preparing for my senior year recital, I remember mentioning to my vocal coach  that I wanted to do Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben (A Woman’s Love and Life) song cycle. It begins with the protagonist meeting the man she falls in love with; continues through their courtship, marriage, and children; and ends with her experiencing his death. I was devastated by her reply. “Absolutely not,” she said. “You don’t understand it enough yet.” Of course, I objected. I was dating Justin, who I would marry a few years later; I certainly understood love! I argued that point. “No,” she said. “You don’t understand the final song yet. You don’t know loss like that. You haven’t experienced anything like it.” I was miffed, of course; isn’t that what acting was about? In the end, I didn’t do the cycle.

All these years later, I understand her point.

Du schläfst, du harter, unbarmherz’ger Mann, den Todesschlaf.

Justin and I celebrated our eleventh wedding anniversary on October 1, 2016. The next day, my mom was flying up for a long-postponed mother-daughter trip to Lake George. We would only be gone for four days. Tuesday came and went; Wednesday evening, after a day of horseback riding and exploring small cafes, I texted Justin to see how his day was. His answer came back, “Left work with a terrible headache. Just got up to eat dinner. Going back to bed now.” We both figured it was just a seasonal migraine. The next day, as mom and I got on the boat for the lake tour, I texted again. “Worse today,” he wrote. “Called out of work. Going to stay home and rest. Seeing double, really weird.

Es blicket die Verlass’ne vor sich hin, Die Welt ist leer.

By Friday morning,  I was racing home at 90 miles an hour to take him to the ER, where after 7 hours of waiting and tests, they admitted him when they confirmed an abnormality on his brain MRI. He was in the hospital for five days, getting what felt like endless amounts of tests. On Saturday, we were told it was probably Multiple Sclerosis, but a spinal tap would confirm. Sunday morning, I got up and got glamorous – I had a concert upstate later that day – and went to spend as much time as possible with him before I had to drive up. Thankfully, his mom had also arrived by then, and stayed with him. I got through the concert on a wing and a prayer – and I can tell you, have never sung a more heartfelt ‘Ah, non credea mirarti’ and ‘Ah fors’è lui’ – and rushed back. We were told two weeks later that the tests showed no MS – but months of pain followed, with no diagnosis and little to no improvement, in his sight or the pain.

Geliebet hab’ ich und gelebt, ich bin nicht lebend mehr.

Finally, we managed to get into the neuro-opthalmology clinic at Weill Cornell hospital; of course, this meant more tests. On April 20th, the confirmation came back that my husband had Multiple Sclerosis; the tests showed multiple new abnormalities in the brain scan.

Ich zieh’ mich in mein Inn’res still zurück, der Schleier fällt

Throughout this entire journey, I’ve found solace in music. For the first time in a long time, I’ve pulled out my lieder book; I’ve looked at arias in a new way. I opened my Schumann book not too long ago, and happened to turn to the Frauenliebe und Leben. I happily sang through the whole cycle, and then came that final piece, the one I didn’t have the space to sing before. I looked at it with fresh eyes, remembering the terror I felt as I watched Justin sleep in that hospital, not knowing what was wrong but knowing it was something very serious. I am not one given to bouts of tears; and yet, listening to this piece now, with the experience of knowing that fear and possible loss, I found myself choked up.

Da hab’ ich dich und mein verlornes Glück, Du meine Welt!

How powerful, then, is music! At the same time as it can cause us to cry with pain we try to suppress, it can heal. By making the singer – and through them, the audience – confront these deeper, usually hidden emotions, we come to terms with how to get through them. The part of me that always wants to present a strong face to the world didn’t want to admit I was scared of losing Justin all through those hours watching him in his hospital bed; the part of me that creates music demanded I accept the emotion. The road ahead may be long (and not always easy), but easy was never promised; and at least it is a road we will be on together.

Now you have caused me my first pain,
But it struck hard,
You sleep, you harsh and pitiless man,
The sleep of death.
The deserted one stares ahead,
The world is void.
I have loved and I have lived,
And now my life is done.
Silently I withdraw into myself,
The veil falls,
There I have you and my lost happiness,
You, my world!

(Translations by Richard Stokes, author of The Book of Lieder (Faber, 2005)


Posted on: May 28, 2017Kelli Butler

2 thoughts on “Living Lieder

  1. Firstly my heart goes out to yourself and to Justin, I can only imagine what our both are going through.

    When it comes to music, it exists in such an emotionally connected space where it can be light hearted but in ways, the only thing that can get you through. Being able to pour your very soul into a piece can be life saving, it has saved mine several times. And I also find as new things happen to me, and I see life and existence for how fragile it is, music I take for granted gains new meaning.

    Thank our for sharing.

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughts! I’ve only really been allowing myself to experience music on the deeper emotional level for the past few years; man, does it make a difference!

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