It is a fact of musical life that there are commonly accepted ‘right’ ways (and even more ‘wrong’ ways) of performing the great works of past. These works arrive on our music stands embedded with notions of ‘stylistic correctness’ that guide our first attempts at interpretation, serving the same function as the lines in a colouring book beyond which aspiring daycare Dürers and kindergarten Caravaggios, crayons in hand, are admonished not to stray.
In the musical world such stylistic guidelines have massive inertia, acquired through the respect that a long performing tradition grants, and so shifting them is not a task for dull minds. And yet, it has been done. Glenn Gould sent powder flying from the wigs of the Baroque establishment with his startling new vision of how Bach should be performed. More recently, fortepianist Robert Levin has attempted to liberate Mozart from the plaster cast of ‘elegant prettiness’ in which he believes this composer has been mummified since the Romantic era.
And now something similar may also be happening to Schubert.
Schubert has always been thought of as a ‘nice’ composer, the sort that you could bring home to meet your mother and tell her you were taking up with, without awakening the kind of worries that an interest in, say, late Scriabin might provoke in the mind of a fretful parent. No, rosy-cheeked Schubert, the composer of blithe and radiant mood, has always remained a kind of Julie Andrews avant la lettre, whistling a happy tune in the face of the challenging circumstances of his life. Was there a care in the world that the soothing balm of the G flat Impromptu could not dissipate? A reversal of fortune that the Ave Maria could not banish from present thought? Generations of Schubert venerators have thought not.
Yet if ever there were a work to challenge the view of Schubert as a composer of buoyant good spirits, light but not deep, it is his song cycle Winterreise, which, with its themes of lost love and the imminent approach of death, would be hard to mistake for a pep talk from a Rogers & Hammerstein musical. Its dark psychological probings and often sombre tone truly shocked the group of Viennese friends before whom Schubert first performed these schauerliche Lieder (horrifying songs), as he called them. And it still has the power to shock us today.
Few musicians have taken their interpretive flashlights into its dark corners quite so fearlessly as Ian Bostridge has done. He stands apart from the crowd of Winterreise performers for the degree of modern anxiety and psychological urgency that he pulls from the score, an approach that has even caused his interpretation to be called ‘expressionist’.
Bostridge performs these songs in heightened psychological relief, as it were, and this approach has much to recommend it, for while simple melodies in balanced four-bar phrases are not lacking in this collection, more striking and memorable by far are the dramatic declamatory monologues that approach in psychological intensity the Sprechstimme of Pierrot Lunaire.
It should not be surprising, then, that shades of Samuel Beckett, Arnold Schoenberg and other modernist innovators haunt Bostridge’s interpretation of this work. He brings notes of biting sarcasm and palpable anger to the score, as well as an occasionally rasping quality of voice not typically found in ‘art song’. And by so doing, he expands our idea of the range of real, intense, lived emotions which this composer was capable of expressing.
Those wishing to gain a deeper understanding of this work through Ian Bostridge’s extensive historical research into its origins and meaning, may wish to consult his newly published tome entitled Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession (Faber & Faber, 2015).
Conceived as a journey into the cold of winter, Schubert’s Winterreise is a musical setting of poems selected from those published in 1823 and 1824 by German Romantic poet Wilhelm Müller under the title Seventy-Seven Poems from the Posthumous Papers of a Travelling Horn-Player. The narrative thread is sketchy, at best, resembling more a slide show than a plot, since all the important action has taken place before the narration begins.
We know that the singer’s journey is prompted by a love affair gone wrong but one of the more vexing questions bedevilling this musical slide show is that of the singer’s status within the house from which he announces his departure as the cycle opens. He leaves in the dead of night, while everyone else is sleeping. What, enquiring minds will ask, was he doing in the family home of his beloved so late at night? Here Ian Bostridge steps forward with a brilliant suggestion that finds much resonance in the social customs of the time: our protagonist is a private live-in tutor of low economic status who had developed feelings for, and perhaps even an understanding with, his young student. (Schubert had at one time been employed as just such a live-in tutor.) Marriage, we learn from the text of the second song, was a live possibility until the young woman’s mother switched her allegiance to a wealthier potential son-in-law.
In the course of the work, the narrator-singer is heard in conversation with his own heart, by turns reflective, questioning, ironic, and finally resigned. In this speculative frame of mind, he drifts fluidly between the world of his dreams and the bitter reality he faces. Despairing and alone with his thoughts, he travels through dark emotional territory, traversing a wide range of village and country settings before finally encountering the forlorn organ-frinder at the end of his journey, symbolic of the death that awaits him. The poems from Wilhelm Müller’s collection provide apt imagery for such a bleak journey, with their recurring themes of loneliness and isolation, watchwords of the emerging Romantic movement in art.
This work was composed in two separate parts in 1827, the year before Schubert’s death, making the terminal illness from which he was suffering one obvious point of reference. The cast of characters with whom the narrator interacts are elements of the natural landscape (sun, wind, trees and leaves, flowers, rivers and snow, crows and ravens), elements that form symbolic company for his journey. Schubert’s achievement in setting these poems is to give musical life to these images, not only in the contours of the singer’s melody, but especially in the pictorial vividness of the piano writing, in a score that is both richly allusive and unusually austere.
Gute Nacht (Good Night)
Our traveller’s grim journey begins at an even walking pace, punctuated by recurring sudden off-beat accents in the piano, emblematic of his inner turmoil. The narration drifts between his present unhappy state (in the minor mode) and happier thoughts (in the major). The poetic theme tying the song cycle together, alienation from emotional fulfillment and earthly existence, is summarized in the very first line: “A stranger I came, a stranger I depart.”
Die Wetterfahne (The weather-vane)
The piano imitates a weather-vane spinning atop his beloved’s house as the singer wonders about those inside. Do their affections also change with the wind? The musical texture is brilliantly evocative, with unisons between piano and singer making you feel the bitter chill in the air and trills evoking the wind blowing the weather-vane around on its spindle.
Gefrorne Tränen (Frozen tears)
This song mixes an eeriness and daintiness, anger and irony. Against a steady backdrop of drip-drip sounds
in the piano, often punctuated by a sudden sforzando accent, the singer asks how his tears can have frozen to his cheek so soon. They were hot enough to melt ice when they poured from his heart. Alternating major & minor harmonies evoke both the warmth of feeling and the chill in the air of this scene.
Stunned by the loss of his love, he searches frantically for any piece of green grass beneath the snow to remind him of happier times. But all is dead around, like his frozen heart. In this strange take on the classic Petrarchan figures of fire and ice, the agitated piano accompaniment portrays the protagonist’s raging inner turmoil.
Der Lindenbaum (The linden tree)
We hear the first intimation of death in this song. As a chill wind blows through the fluttering leaves evoked by the piano, he passes by a tree into which he once carved words of love. Once the emblem of his happiness, it now offers him eternal rest beneath its branches. Bostridge has pointed out that the linden tree was popular meeting place for townsfolk, giving this song a resonance of German nationalism. It is not surprising, then, that this simple tuneful melody lives on outside of Schubert’s song cycle as the well-known German folksong, Am Brunnen vor dem Tore.
In this eerily calm, almost stately song, the protagonist muses on how the snow will absorb his tears, then thaw in the spring and flow with them into the stream. The flow of this stream will feel their warmth once again as it passes his beloved’s house. Here we find a classic example of the ‘pathetic fallacy’ in Romantic poetry, in which Nature is imagined as reflecting and experiencing human emotions.
Auf Dem Flusse (On the river)
The strange tiptoe pace of this song gives it an aura of mystery, or perhaps merely tentativeness. The ice covering the river, on which he has carved the story of his love affair, is like his heart: it rages with a torrent beneath. Changes from minor to major and back again are chilling, and near the end, the piano pulses with signs of his inner torment.
Rückblick (A backward glance)
Pursued by crows as he breathlessly escapes, the wanderer casts a nostalgic glance back at the town he is leaving, once so pleasant to his memory. And looking back, he still longs to stand in front of her house once again. Like many of the songs in this cycle, this one is divided clearly into major- and minor-mode sections.
The flickering light of a will-o’-the-wisp, imitated in the fast repeated notes in the piano, leads him astray into
a mountain chasm. He has no worries, though, for as rivers lead to the sea, so human miseries, like will-o’-the- wisp, are but a game, all leading to the grave.
A drowsy opening piano introduction finds him pausing from the fatigue of his journey. He shelters in a little hut, but this bodily respite from the cold and wind only allows him to feel more keenly the burning sting of jealousy in his heart. The concentration of thought that has overtaken the singer is conveyed in an often speech-like, un-’melodic’ vocal line.
Frühlingstraum (Dream of Spring)
In one of the happiest of Schubertian melodies, we find our protagonist lost in a dream of springtime, then awakened by the rooster’s call and the shrieking of crows. Drifting between a dream state and harsh reality, he longs to feel once again the warmth of love. The piano score paints in turn the sudden shrieks of birds and the torpor of his drowsy eyelids. The change of mode from major to minor at the very end conveys his hopelessness. When will the ice-flowers in the window turn green? When will he hold her in his arms? The answer to both questions is: never.
The slow trudging pace of the piano’s opening paints his despair as he travels on his way, lonely as the cloud drifting overhead above the tops of the trees. The stillness in the air, the brightness of the scene, are no help to his pain. When storms raged he was less miserable than this.
Die Post (The mail-coach)
The gallop of horses’ hooves and the triadic call of the post-horn sets the second half of the song cycle in motion as our wanderer’s heart leaps with the arrival of the mail-coach. Does it bring a letter from her? The upbeat tone of this song is an ironic set-up for emotional travails to follow.
Der Greise Kopf (The hoary head)
Eeriness returns in a song shrink-wrapped around the text rather than arranged in stanzas. The frost on his head has made him look like an old man, a welcome thought. Then horror sets in as he realizes he is still young, with so very far yet to travel to the grave. The sparseness of the piano part creates a chilling stillness as sonic backdrop to these dark thoughts.
Die Krähe (The crow)
Circling overhead, a crow has been following the wanderer. Is it waiting to feast on his carcass? Will this crow, unlike his beloved, stay with him till he dies? The piano, brilliantly imitating the circling path of the crow, twinkles and wafts above the singer, who stoops very low in his range, creating a pictorial image in music of the two figures, one in the sky, the other walking below on the earth.
Letzte Hoffnung (Last hope)
The traveller identifies with a lone leaf hanging on a barren tree, waiting to fall. If it falls, so too do his hopes fall to their grave. The piano paints a vivid picture of leaves falling all around him. There is so little rapport between the piano and the voice, the piano seems so convincingly exterior to the singer’s concerns, that one thinks of the tone and texture of Pierrot Lunaire.
Im Dorfe (In the village)
As he passes through a village, dogs growl at him from the lower regions of the piano texture, rattling their chains. Everyone is in their beds, dreaming. Why should he stay with these dreamers, when his own dreams are all over?
Der Stürmische Morgen (The stormy morning)
With the courage of desperation, the traveller faces an early morning storm that tears the heavens apart. Raging in the cold of winter, it is the very image of his own heart. Unisons between piano and singer again evoke the blowing of the wind and bitter chill in the air.
He sees a light dancing in the distance, which might be a warm house with a loving soul inside. In the dream world he inhabits, even a delusion brings him some comfort.
Der Wegweiser (The signpost)
Avoiding the busy byways, he heads for wild and desolate places, ignoring every signpost but one: the one leading him to a place from which no one returns. Here is another foreboding of approaching death: the path indicated to him is one “from which no one returned.”
Das Wirtshaus (The inn)
Liturgical solemnity, combined with a grim determination, pervades the scene as the traveller stops at a cemetery filled with garland-bedecked graves that beckon him like a welcoming inn. All its rooms, however, are taken and he is turned away, so he resolutely resigns himself to continue on his journey.
A plucky spirit overtakes him, as he dispels defeatism to face wind and weather, feeling like a God on earth. Quick changes between major and minor tonalities from phrase to phrase embody the difficulties he faces and the courage he uses to face them.
Die Nebensonnen (Phantom suns)
He sees three suns in the sky, and stares at them. He, too, had three suns once, but having lost the two he cherished most (her eyes), he now has only one, and he wishes that would go dark, too.
Der Leiermann (The organ grinder)
A drone in the piano announces the forlorn figure of an old organ grinder playing with numb fingers, barefoot in the cold, his begging plate lying empty as dogs growl at him. This is the only human being the traveller meets on his winter journey. Shall he go with this strange man? Will the organ grinder play his songs? The symbolic resonance of this final scene is quietly shattering.
Donald G. Gíslason © 2015