Ian Bostridge on Music’s Fuzzy Boundaries of Identity

Identity is something that all performers have to confront. Each time we stand onstage to deliver a text — literary or musical, or some combination of the two — we have a decision to make about its character, and about our stance toward it. How do we go about embodying it? Do we take on the identity of the material we have absorbed, or does it reconfigure itself as it is molded to our own identity? What is our duty to the text? To the audience? To ourselves?

My book “Song and Self” explores and worries at issues of identity that come to the fore in some of the works I love — issues of gender, for example. Is the real protagonist of Robert Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und -Leben” not the woman we see on the surface, but rather the composer, whose anxieties and passions inflect the cycle at every point? What difference does it make if the cycle is sung, as it was in the 19th century, by a man? Should I sing it today?

Then again, how important is the gender of the Madwoman, which I have sung, in “Curlew River”? Britten uses the ritual resources of Japanese Noh theater to create a sort of distancing. Cross-gender casting is a part of this, but one which in blurring our perceptions of gender only amplifies the impact of the austerely told story: The Madwoman is all of us.

Troubling political issues can also intersect with the sung persona as I discovered in my research into Ravel’s “Chansons Madécasses.” The second section of this powerful cycle, for voice and instrumental trio, is a setting of an 18th-century protest against longstanding French attempts to colonize Madagascar, voiced by a Malagasy. “Méfiez-vous des blancs” (“Beware of the whites”) he cries — but that cry was written by Évariste Parny, an opponent of slavery yet a slave owner.

Ravel wrote the song in the midst of French colonial wars in North Africa, only a few decades after the bloody French conquest of Madagascar in 1896. Some early audiences saw the piece as political provocation. There’s something troubling about these twin acts of ventriloquism, Parny’s poem and Ravel’s music. In addressing the song we have to ask questions about the poet’s bad faith as a slaveholding abolitionist, about the composer’s motives and about our own. Who should sing this song? Who owns it?

“Song and Self” is very much an exploratory work. It takes the notion of the essay at its word — as an attempt, an experiment. If I draw any conclusion, it’s that the way to approach classical music, in an era in which its relevance or ideological stance is constantly being questioned, is to explore where it comes from more closely, not to throw it away. Questioning is built into the classical music tradition; and interpreting this complex music that we have inherited means negotiating between the preoccupations of the past and the present so that we can discover more about ourselves.

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