The late-eighteenth-century cult of sensibility unleashed a torrent of weeping all over Europe. Chatterton handkerchiefs, printed in red or blue, flooded the market, depicting the distressed teenage poet in his garret; the suicide in 1770 of this literary prodigy and forger was later encoded into Romantic myth by Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley. Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, published four years after Thomas Chatterton’s death and a smash hit, pushed crying to its erotic limit. Reading Klopstock together, Werther and his beloved but off-limits Charlotte touch (barely) and weep. “By releasing his tears without constraint,” Roland Barthes wrote, Werther “follows the order of the amorous body, which is in liquid expansion, a bathed body: to weep together, to flow together: delicious tears finish off the reading.” Werther’s English translator in 1786 made the connection between the real and the fictional suicide: “Nature had infused too strong a proportion of passion in [Werther’s] composition; his feelings, like those of our Chatterton, were too fine to support the load of accumulated distress; and like him his diapason closed in death.”
Sensibility flowed into Romanticism, and Romantic poetry inherited a complex obsession with tears. German piano-accompanied song, the lied, grounded in lyric poetry, is awash with them. But the simple tears of sensibility, like those of “Wonne der Wehmut” (Delight in Melancholy), Goethe’s poem published the year after Werther and set by Schubert in 1815—Trocknet nicht, Tränen der ewigen Liebe (“do not dry, tears of everlasting love”)—give way to the twisted tears of the Romantics: self-conscious, ironic, deadly. In Schubert’s faux-naïf bucolic song cycle to poems of Wilhelm Müller, Die schöne Müllerin (The Beautiful Maid of the Mill, 1823), we learn that crying cannot bring withered love back to life; the miller boy, disappointed in love, flings himself into the mill brook that had earlier absorbed his tears. His diapason ends in death. The crying in Schubert’s monumental twenty-four-song Winterreise (1827–1828), to words by the same poet, is more complicated. Tears won’t come; the heart is frozen. Death is not available as a release. By the time of Schubert’s last song cycle, Schwanengesang, which includes six laconic poems by Heinrich Heine, tears are cursed. The poet drinks them from his lover’s hands. Since then his body has withered; she has poisoned him with her tears.
One of the most striking scenes conjured up in Laura Tunbridge’s new book, Singing in the Age of Anxiety, a study of lieder singing in New York and London between the wars, is a coda, Lotte Lehmann’s tearful farewell recital in New York, nearly six years after the end of World War II, in February 1951. Born in 1888, Lehmann had been one of the great singers of the age. In the field of opera she was particularly associated…
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