Scholars who have analyzed performances of Schubert’s Lieder have generally focused on the voices of masterful professionals, whether looking at performances before or during the age of sound recordings. This tendency overlooks one historically important group of performers: the amateurs who made up the broad marketplace for the genre during Schubert’s lifetime and throughout the nineteenth century. Studying this group of performers with any level of aesthetic particularity is, however, difficult: documentary evidence of particular singers in this group in the nineteenth century and even the early twentieth is scarce. Yet as the real-life practice of the amateur singing of Schubert’s Lieder in the home gradually dwindled after the nineteenth century, fictional representations of this nineteenth-century practice began to appear in period sound films across the twentieth. While not a substitute for documentary evidence of real practices, this film phenomenon meaningfully engages with nineteenth-century cultural history, literary sources, and musical practices through presentist conventions and concerns. Such films thus offer a vehicle through which to think about continuity and change in the relationship between Schubert’s song and the figure of the amateur in the nineteenth century, the twentieth century, and today.
This article analyzes three period film scenes involving nineteenth-century “amateur” performances of Schubert’s “Ständchen” (Schwanengesang, D. 957, no. 4). It does so in order to think about the combined aesthetic and social ramifications of the figure of the amateur in relationship to Schubert’s Lieder. I look at scenes in the following three films: the operetta-influenced Schubert picture Leise flehen meine Lieder (1933), in which operetta star Mártha Eggerth sings as the Countess Esterházy, the classic novel adaptation Jane Eyre (1934), in which Virginia Bruce sings as the titular character, and a newly written piece of “governess fiction,” The Governess (1998), in which Minnie Driver performs the song as said governess. None of these scenes offers unmediated or simple access to amateurism. Instead, in each scene, a professional, twentieth-century celebrity woman movie star both sings and otherwise portrays the nineteenth-century amateur musician and character onscreen. Keeping this tension in mind, I explore how this contradiction and other elements in each scene would have and can still provide audiences opportunities to think about the relationship between amateurism and Schubert’s most popular songs. In so doing, I explore the term “amateur” in a number of overlapping senses that embrace positive and, to a lesser extent, pejorative meanings. My analysis ultimately shows how these three diverse film stagings valorize the figure and, indeed, the voice of the amateur in relationship to Schubert’s music. These conclusions have implications regarding Schubert’s songs and successful modes of performance that might attend them.