top of page
  • Scott Williamson

Winterreise: Anecdotes and Images

Caspar David Friedrich's romantic Wanderer

Below are my program notes (in the form of 24 anecdotes) and select images which will be projected during an upcoming performance of Schubert's epic song-cycle Winterreise. Thanks to our friends at Amherst Glebe Arts Response for sponsoring my debut of this great work.

Schubert’s Winterreise: Program notes in 24 anecdotes

1. For some time Schubert appeared very upset and melancholy. When I asked him what was troubling him, he would say only, ‘Soon you will hear and understand.’ One day he said to me, ‘Come over to Schober’s today and I will sing you a cycle of horrifying songs. I am anxious to know what you will say about them. They have cost me more effort than any of my other songs.’ So he sang the entire Winterreisethrough to us in a voice full of emotion. We were utterly dumbfounded by the mournful, gloomy tone of these songs… Schubert replied, ‘I like these songs more than all the rest, and you will come to like them as well.’ (Joseph Spaun’s reminiscences of Schubert)

Kruger's "Prussian Cavalry" 1821 (note the bottom left corner)

2. Schubert contracted syphilis in 1823. The remaining five years of his life are a remarkable example of resilient productivity in the face of debilitating illness. “Pain sharpens the understanding and strengthens the mind,” he wrote in his journal from 1824.

3. Writing just before his hero’s early death, Schumann said “Schubert is Jean Paul, Novalis, and Hoffmann expressed in sound,” referring to a triumvirate of German Romantic authors.

cover art by DFD

4. Schubert was a pallbearer in Beethoven’s funeral in 1827, during the period of Winterreise’s composition. Wilhelm Müller, the poet of both Schubert’s great song cycles (Die schöne Müllerin is Winterreise’s prequel) also died in 1827, as Schubert was finishing his “Winter Journey.”

Friedrich's Abbey graveyard in snow

5. Müller was known as the “German Byron.” Like his English contemporary he was an active participant in democratic movements across Europe, earning the nickname “Greek Müller.”

6. Winterreise is full of polarities which heighten the subtle ironies of Müller’s verse. Burning grief vies with frozen tears, dreams of spring delude the Poet-Wanderer in the midst of winter storms. Larks and nightingales are counterpoint to ravens and crows.

Friedrich's crows in trees

7. The psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison has studied the high concentration of manic-depressive illness in poets and composers. Schubert’s struggles with depression are juxtaposed with periods of manic creativity, and align like a Venn diagram for bipolar disorder. Winterreise is a case study.

8. Schubert's first song cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin has a narrative: it tells the story of a young man's unrequited love for his employer's daughter. While ostensibly another tale of a failed love affair, Winterreise is a psychological journey, an emotional monodrama. The winter landscape through which the poet wanders mirrors the state of his soul.

Another Friedrich winter landscape

9. Schubert’s "Winter Wanderer" is autobiographical. He may be a tragic figure, but he is not a pathetic one. Unlike the suicidal poet of his earlier song-cycle, Winterreise’s protagonist trudges on.

10. The Romantic fascination with glaciers: “the stream of solid ice” is how Shelley described Alpine examples. “Frozen blood forever circulating thro’ his stony veins,” personifying a landscape that fascinated and terrified, like Winterreise’s 7th song, “Auf dem Fluße.”

Friedrich's Sea of Ice

11. Mary Shelley’s “modern Prometheus” Frankenstein features chapters unfolding on frozen landscapes. The heart of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, “Snow” ascribes a “ghostly pallor” to its forbidding setting, where “the empty air would riot… a chaos of white darkness, a beast.”

12. Later in The Magic Mountain,“The Fullness of Harmony” chapter describes a performance of Winterreise’s5thsong, “Der Lindenbaum,” perhaps the most famous of all German lieder, and one with the status of an instantly recognizable folk-song.

Linden Tree in Winter

13. Among the oldest of European trees, the Linden or Lime tree has mythic status from Homer and Ovid to Coleridge, Mahler and Proust. It was sacred to the Nordic goddess Freya, and “becomes the symbol of German tradition” in Mann’s novel. In a recent German episode of “The Simpsons,” Bart raps a version of Schubert’s famous setting.

14. “Frühlingstraum” (“Dream of Spring”), Winterreise’s11th song is a companion piece to “Der Lindenbaum.” Both represent delusional dreams with “sunny” major-key openings set to tuneful melodies. Both dash those dreams with subsequent minor-key verses underscoring the reality of the poet’s solitude. The polarities referenced above are glaring as the winter sun on snow.

Bentley's 1903 photo montage of snowflakes

15. “Dream of Spring” also features other Romantic fetishes, snowflakes and “ice flowers.” The tenor Ian Bostridge’s excellent book, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession chronicles a few examples. The Magic Mountain describes “precise little jewels: gemstones, star insignia, diamond brooches,” and Brontë’s Jane Eyre remembers “breathing on the frost- flowers with which the window was fretted.”

from Robert Hooke's 16th study, Micrographia

16. The song before “Dream of Spring” is the ironic “Rast” (“Rest”) which opens with a line any hiker could recognize. “I only notice how tired I am now that I’ve stopped for a rest.” Two other images may require unpacking. The hut in which the wanderer finds temporary shelter is a charcoal-burner’s. The “Carbonari” were also a group of radical progressives, symbolized by the colors red and black. Byron and Müller were both familiar with this “secret society” whose “hut” would have been a meeting place for the democratic revolutionaries. While less politically active than some of his poet colleagues, Schubert was once detained for “suspicious” activities, and songs written across his brief career contain coded messages resisting the reactionary “Holy Alliance” instituted by Metternich in the early decades of the 19th century.

Friedrich's hut under snow

17. The other potent image in “Rast” concerns the “Wurm.” William Blake’s “The Sick Rose” from Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience (those polar opposites again) is a metaphor for the ravages of syphilis. The invisible worm… / Has found out thy bed of crimson joy /And his dark secret love / Doth thy life destroy. Blake’s poem was memorably set by one of the great Schubert interpreters of the 20th century, Benjamin Britten, whose recording of Winterreise with his partner, the tenor Peter Pears remains a benchmark. In German mythology, the “Wurm” is also a serpent or dragon, thus lending Müller’s and Schubert’s image even more range and power.

Dragon on the side of Munich's town hall

18. Samuel Beckett loved Schubert’s music, and Winterreise in particular. The twelfth (and penultimate) of his Texts for Nothing reads like existentialist stage directions for Schubert’s cycle:

It’s a winter night, where I was, where I’m going, remembered, imagined, no matter, believing inme, believing it’s me, no, no need…under the sky, with a voice, no, no need, and the power to move, now and then, no need either…

Photo by the author, Winter Journey in Munich, 2019

19. The German musicologist Arnold Feil notes the striking uses of unison textures in Winterreise. The greatest possible reduction in means has the most powerful effect. Of the 14th song, “Der Greise Kopf” (“The Grey Head”) he identifies the portentous last line of the 2nd stanza as its key: The song seems to be composed for this line alone, and with this line it serves as a road sign. Wie weit noch bis zur Bahre! (“How far it is to the funeral bier!”)

Friedrich graveyard in snow

20. Our poet addresses his ex (lover? fiancée?) only once, and in the first song. The only other human he encounters is the hurdy-gurdy player (“Der Leiermann”), the waif-like musician of the final song. He uses the striking adjective “wunderlicher” (strange, bizarre) to describe his fellow wanderer, a symbolic “Doppelgänger.” He uses the same word to describe one of his non-human companions, the crow (“Die Krähe”) in song 15. He also addresses his tears, several trees, the snow, a river, a town, various other birds, his heart, funeral wreaths, and among others, the sun. He refers to himself in both the first and third persons. Dogs bark at him repeatedly.

Van Gogh's crows

21. Irrlicht (“Will-o-the-Wisp”) literally means “crazy light,” and is another freighted poetic symbol. “She” appears in Milton’s Paradise Lost and converses with Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust. Caused by the oxidation of phosphine, the mysterious lights appearing over swamps and marshes at night also appear in an Emily Dickinson poem under their medieval Latin name, “fool’s fire”:

The abdication of Belief / Makes the Behavior small – / Better an ignis fatuus/ Than no illume at all –

Moser's expressionist illustration of Schubert's song

22. The composer Doug Cuomo recently premiered a monodrama based on his own English versions of Müller’s poems. Savage Winter reimagines Winterreise in a modern-day setting, where the rejected lover processes his pain in an increasingly debauched state alone in a motel, accompanied by keyboards, electric guitar and a noir-infused jazz trumpet. “Breaking Bad meets Samuel Beckett” read one by-line.

Munch's "Irrlicht"

23. Listen for: The “walking motion” of the first song’s incessant quavers (8th notes, echoed and varied across the cycle in songs 10 and 20, among others). The wind-tossed “weather-vane” in the 2nd song. The sharp staccato “frozen tears” of no. 3. The dissonant keening of voice against piano depicting the “burning grief” in no. 6. The agitated rhythms which open no. 8 depicting the Wanderer’s tripping. The bright Posthorn in no. 13 vs. the rustic Waldhorn in the forest of no. 5.

Listen for the high-soaring tessitura and circling patterns mimicking the crow in no. 15. The unpredictable, off-beat accented rhythms of the falling leaves in no. 16. The rattling dog chains at the start of no. 17. The haunting evocation of the hurdy-gurdy in the 24th and final song.

de le Tour's "Old Man" hurdy-gurdy player

24. Benjamin Britten spoke of a dream of meeting Schubert in Vienna which “blessed the following days in a way that I have seldom remembered.” On another occasion the remarkably productive British composer, pianist, conductor and arts-administrator summed up Schubert’s late-period burst of creativity thus: It is arguable that the richest and most productive eighteen months in our music history is the time when Beethoven had just died, when the other 19th-century giants, Wagner, Verdi and Brahms, had not begun; I mean the period in which Franz Schubert wrote his Winterreise, the C major symphony, his last three piano sonatas, the C major string quintet, as well as a dozen other glorious pieces. The very creation of these works in that space of time seems hardly credible, but the standard of inspiration, of magic, is miraculous and past all explanation.

I'd love to see any of our friends able to join us in Amherst, VA Sunday Feb. 10 at 4 pm.


Ian Bostridge, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession

Arthur Feil, Franz Schubert: Die Schöne Müllerin – Winterreise

John Reed, The Schubert Song Companion

Susan Youens, Retracing a Winter’s Journey: Schubert’s Winterreise

Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

Samuel Beckett, Texts for Nothing

104 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page