The Gramophone-award winning partnership of Gerald Finley and Julius Drake turns to perhaps the most celebrated song-cycle of them all. Schubert’s Winterreise is a masterpiece of despair, astonishing in its bleakness and enthrallingly mesmerizing as the journey continues. Finley brings all his considerable dramatic powers to his performance—and all but submerges them under the ice.
Richard Wigmore writes that ‘before Winterreise Schubert had composed individual songs of pathos and despair, even of apocalyptic terror. What was new about the cycle was the spareness and angularity of much of the writing, the work’s sustained godless pessimism and its obsessive exploration of a mind veering between delusion, ironic self-awareness and nihilistic despair. The water music, limpid, turbulent or benedictory, of Schubert’s earlier Müller cycle, Die schöne Müllerin, yields in Winterreise to musical emblems of trudging and stumbling, bareness and exhaustion, derangement and frozen, trancelike stillness’.
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According to the memoirs of Schubert’s friend Joseph von Spaun—more reliable than most Schubertian reminiscences—the composer was in melancholy spirits in the early months of 1827. Asked what was wrong, Schubert replied: ‘Well, you will soon hear and understand.’ Then on 4 March Schubert invited a group of friends to the house of the rich dilettante Franz von Schober, where, as Spaun recalled, he would sing ‘a cycle of spine-chilling (schauerliche) songs. I am anxious to know what you will say about them. They have affected me more than any of my other songs.’ Schubert, depressed and distracted, failed to turn up at Schober’s that evening. But the promised event did apparently take place that spring or summer, when he sang them through ‘in a voice wrought with emotion’. His hearers were baffled at the unrelieved gloom of the songs. Schober probably spoke for many when he said he liked only Der Lindenbaum, the most obviously ‘tuneful’ number in the cycle. Schubert, conscious he had achieved something quite extraordinary even by his standards, reportedly replied: ‘I like these songs better than any others, and you will come to like them as well.’
What his friends heard that evening was, in fact, only the first twelve songs of Winterreise, settings of poems by Wilhelm Müller (1794–1827) which Schubert had discovered in a periodical, apparently given to him by Schober. He evidently considered the ‘cycle’ complete, casting the twelfth song, Einsamkeit, in the same key (D minor) as the opening song, and writing ‘Finis’ at the end of the manuscript.
A few months later, in the autumn of 1827, Schubert alighted on Müller’s complete Winterreise, containing an extra twelve poems which had been intercalated throughout the existing texts. As the first twelve songs were already with the printer, he merely appended the new songs to the original twelve. Schubert would probably have adopted Müller’s order if he had come across the complete Winterreise in the first place. But the fact is that he didn’t. While certain songs arguably make better psychological sense in Müller’s sequence—Die Post as No 6, rather than as No 13, for instance, or Frühlingstraum as No 21, immediately after another hallucinatory song, Die Nebensonnen—Schubert created a virtue from necessity: in his order Die Post provides a bracing contrast to the gradually darkening inner and outer landscapes, revitalizing the cycle at its mid-point; and it is significant that Schubert chose to place the desperate bravado of Mut! at No 22, rather than at No 23, as in Müller. In his order, Die Nebensonnen and Der Leiermann form a haunted close to the cycle, their transfigured bleakness and suffering uninterrupted by any show of defiance.
Before Winterreise Schubert had composed individual songs of pathos and despair, even of apocalyptic terror. What was new about the cycle—and what evidently disturbed his friends—was the spareness and angularity of much of the writing, the work’s sustained godless pessimism and its obsessive exploration of a mind veering between delusion, ironic self-awareness and nihilistic despair. The water music, limpid, turbulent or benedictory, of Schubert’s earlier Müller cycle, Die schöne Müllerin, yields in Winterreise to musical emblems of trudging and stumbling, bareness and exhaustion, derangement and frozen, trancelike stillness. The protagonist is no longer an innocent, trusting youth but one whose life has been blasted by experience, a man severed from normal human bonds and fated, like Goethe’s disturbed old Harper and the lone, brooding figures in the darker landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, to remain at the margins of existence.
Beyond this, the cycle’s intermittent sense of existential absurdity (say, in Der greise Kopf and Die Krähe) distantly foreshadows the world of Samuel Beckett. ‘The grim journey’, as he dubbed it, was a favourite work of the Irish playwright’s, as it was of Benjamin Britten, who ranked Winterreise with Bach’s B minor Mass (its spiritual antithesis) as the twin peaks of Western music.
The repeated chords of the first song, Gute Nacht, immediately evoke the trudge of the wanderer’s footsteps, a musical image that will recur, with gradually increasing weariness, throughout the cycle. Schubert turns to the tonic major for the last verse, conjuring with exquisite pathos an irretrievable happiness; but the minor returns, with a gentle twist of the knife, on the singer’s final ‘An dich hab’ ich gedacht’. This major-minor symbolism, the minor mode evoking the grim reality of the wanderer’s plight, the major dream, delusion or remembered bliss, will be a crucial structural factor in the whole cycle.
In Die Wetterfahne, with its gusting, whistling winds and gyrating weathervane—graphically evoked by the piano—we learn that the wanderer has been jilted, like the protagonist of Schumann’s Dichterliebe, in favour of a rich suitor (‘Ihr Kind ist eine reiche Braut’). The song’s tone of mocking bitterness will surface periodically throughout Winterreise. The next two songs are dominated by images of ice and scalding tears. In Gefrorne Tränen the trudging gait of Gute Nacht has already grown wearier; and the music freezes altogether at ‘Ei Tränen’, a graphic—and deeply disquieting—realization of Müller’s conceit of tears turning to ice. Erstarrung, with its sweeping lines and moto perpetuo accompaniment (note the dialogue between voice and piano left hand—a favourite Schubert technique), is the most urgent and impassioned of all the Winterreise songs, taking its cue from the ‘burning tears’ of the poem.
More than any of the other Winterreise songs, Der Lindenbaum (the linden tree, with its idyllic associations, played a crucial role in the German Romantic imagination) has attained an independent popularity. German and Austrian schoolchildren sing it as a quasi-folksong. But the beguilingly sweet melody, soft, full keyboard harmonies and suggestions of distant horn calls (another quintessential German Romantic symbol) are even more haunting within the context of the cycle. Major turns to minor for the third verse as dream and memory are confronted by the chill reality of the storm-swept night.
The imagery of ice and scalding tears reappears in Wasserflut; here the key word ‘Weh’ is set to a searing, stabbing dissonance, all the more shocking after a sequence of simple tonic and dominant harmonies. Auf dem Flusse resumes the walking gait of Gute Nacht with a new lassitude. At the words ‘Wie still bist du geworden’ the harmony dips softly to the chord a semitone below the home key, an eerie, heart-stopping evocation of the river glazing over into ice. In the tonally unstable final verse the fragmented vocal line underlines the wanderer’s increasingly introspective anguish. Rückblick looks back to Erstarrung, with a heightened agitation created by the syncopations, offbeat accents and irregular phrasing. In the nostalgic major-keyed section, the memory of ‘runden Lindenbäume’ prompts an unmistakable allusion to Der Lindenbaum.
From now on the wanderer’s lost love recedes further into the background as the cycle takes on an increasingly universal, philosophical dimension. The hypnotic motion of Irrlicht is the first hint of madness which is to flicker through the later songs in the cycle. In Rast (where the charcoal-burner remains an offstage presence, unheeded by the music) the weak offbeat accents and static bass graphically evoke the traveller’s weariness; the curling semiquaver patterns at the end of each strophe were surely inspired by the image of the serpent in the final lines.
Frühlingstraum uses the same major-minor symbolism as Der Lindenbaum, with the dream evoked in another of Schubert’s tenderly innocent quasi-folksongs, and minor-keyed reality breaking in with the screeching, discordant cries of the cock and ravens. Most poignantly of all, the slow final section oscillates between major and minor as dreaming mingles with wry self-awareness. Einsamkeit, the final song in Schubert’s original conception, looks back to Gute Nacht and Rast in its accompaniment and melodic contours, though the vocal line is now more fragmented, the piano textures barer.
With its galloping rhythms and braying posthorn calls, Die Post has a vigour that may seem startling in the context of this cycle. In Schubert’s order it represents the wanderer’s last, fleeting, contact with the world of cheerful, robust normality, and significantly it is the last song in which his lost love is mentioned. In the next two songs the spectre of madness returns. Der greise Kopf seems to encapsulate in the vast span of the opening phrase all the immense burden of the traveller’s anguish. Yet there is also a hint of pitch-black, Beckettian humour here and in the trance-like Die Krähe, where the shadowing of the voice by the piano at the higher octave evokes the silently circling crow, sinister companion and predator.
The desultory two-note figures that blur the pulse and the tonality in Letzte Hoffnung simultaneously suggest the falling leaves, the wanderer’s tottering footsteps and his loosening grip on reality—a wonderful example of Schubert’s gift for inventing musical images that paint both the external scene and the protagonist’s inner state. Tonal rhythmic stability is only attained with the great arching phrases at ‘Wein, wein’. The aching beauty of this cantilena is paralleled at the end of Im Dorfe, in which the snarling of the dogs, their rattling chains and the complacently sleeping villagers form an ironic backdrop to the traveller’s mingled bitterness and resignation. In contrast, Der stürmische Morgen, with its blustering unison writing, is a song of wild bravado before the encroaching derangement of the final numbers.
The 6/8 lilt of Täuschung looks back to Frühlingstraum. Schubert here recycles a ballad number from his opera Alfonso und Estrella, never performed in the composer’s lifetime. Yet with its faux-naïf simplicity and ironic suggestion of a Viennese waltz, it is a perfect emblem of the wanderer’s pathetic delusion and exclusion from the world of human conviviality. Der Wegweiser is the longest and most complex of this final group of songs, and the last dominated by the walking rhythm of Gute Nacht. The singer’s chant-like monotone and the piano’s slow-moving chromatic bass (time-honoured musical symbol of death) lend a terrifying power to the final ‘Einen Weiser seh’ ich stehen’. Müller was a noted scholar of English literature, and the poem’s last two lines were surely suggested by Hamlet’s ‘The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’. But the prospect of death here is denied the wanderer in Das Wirtshaus, a song both majestic and bitingly ironic, whose sonorous, organ-like chords and solemn, measured phrases have obvious churchly associations.
Mut! is a counterpart to Der stürmische Morgen, hurling defiance at God and fate in a manic parody of a military march. Delusion, now disturbingly serene, returns in Die Nebensonnen, whose incantatory, sarabande melody revolves, trance-like, around one note. The symbolism of the suns has been endlessly debated: there may be allusions to lines from Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 3 here, or to a physical phenomenon known as parhelion, whereby refraction of light by ice crystals in the cloud produces images of the sun on either side of it. Yet it is surely more in keeping with the simplicity and directness of the poetic imagery in Winterreise that the first two suns should symbolize the eyes of the beloved, the third the wanderer’s own life.
In the final Der Leiermann he makes contact with another human being, the ancient hurdy-gurdy man, a forlorn, tottering figure forever condemned to grind out repeated snatches of wheezing melody. (Hurdy-gurdy men were a commonplace in and around Schubert’s Vienna.) After the almost compassionate address to the old man and the despairing final ‘drehn’, the strange pair seem to recede into the frozen landscape. Whether one sees the hurdy-gurdy man as a symbol of death, or as a terrifying vision of the wanderer’s own future existence (according to the dramatist Eduard von Bauernfeld, Schubert saw him as a portent of what he might become as his illness took its toll), this shockingly bare, desolate music stands as an enigmatic epitaph to Schubert’s fathomlessly great cycle of ‘spine-chilling songs’.
Richard Wigmore © 2014