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  • Writer's pictureScott M Williamson

24 Winter Journeys...

(Joan Eardley, Catterline in Winter)

Here are my notes for this weekend's performance of Schubert's Winterreise. If you can't make it to the Lenfest Center in Lexington on Oct 30 at 3 pm, here's a link to the livestream (which will not be archived):

Winterreise: Program notes in 24 anecdotes

24 is a symbolic number: with its associations to the diurnal hours, it is the number of books in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible, or so-called “Old Testament”). 24 is the number of major and minor keys in western music: it reflects the number of pieces in both sets of Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier and piano collections by Chopin, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Hindemith and Shostakovich.

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… 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 Winterreise through 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)

Syphilis was essentially a terminal sentence when Schubert became ill in 1823. He chronicled his struggles with depression; his sexuality and politics could only be safely expressed in code. He is a remarkable example of resilient productivity in the face of repression and debilitating illness. “Pain sharpens the understanding and strengthens the mind,” he wrote in his journal in 1824.

The Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison has studied the high concentration of manic-depressive illness in poets and composers. Schubert’s depressive episodes are juxtaposed with periods of manic creativity and align like a diagram for bipolar disorder. Winterreise is but one case study.

(Caspar David Friedrich, Church graveyard under Snow)

Writing just before his hero’s early death, Robert Schumann compared Schubert to three of German Romanticism's esteemed writers: he is Jean Paul, Novalis, and Hoffmann expressed in sound. Robert also praised the “heavenly length” of Schubert’s late works, widely cited examples of the Romantic Sublime.

Schubert was a pallbearer in Beethoven’s funeral a year before his own death. Wilhelm Müller, the poet of Schubert’s first song-cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin, also died in 1827, while Schubert finished the songs of Winterreise, songs which have lodged the poet's name in Europe's cultural memory.

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

Winterreise is full of polarities which heighten the ironies of Müller’s verse. Burning grief vies with frozen tears in the 4th song, while dreams of spring delude the Poet-Wanderer amid winter storms in the 11th. Larks and nightingales are a counterpoint to ravens in the 8th song and the Crow’s own Lied (song) in no. 15.

(Gustav Klimt, Franz Schubert)

Die Schöne Müllerin has a narrative: it tells the story of a young man's unrequited love for his employer's daughter. Though it alludes to a former lover, Winterreise is a psychological journey, an interior monologue. The winter landscape through which the poet stomps, stumbles and wanders mirrors his state of being.

Schubert’s “Winter Soldier” is autobiographical. He may be a tragic figure, but he is not a pathetic one. Unlike the poet-victim of his earlier song-cycle, Winterreise’s protagonist carries on. In the Romantic imagination, he confronts and chronicles the twin poles of the Sublime: awe and terror.

Glaciers are symbols of the Sublime. “The stream of solid ice” is how Shelley described Alpine examples. “Frozen blood forever circulating thro’ his stony veins.” This blend of fascination and terror appears in the 7th song, Auf dem Fluße ("On the River").

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.”

Later in The Magic Mountain, “The Fullness of Harmony” describes a performance of Winterreise’s 5th song, Der Lindenbaum, a German Lied so well-known it has a life-of-its-own as a folksong.

Among the oldest of European trees, the Linden 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 German episode of “The Simpsons,” Bart raps a version of Schubert’s famous setting.

(Linden Tree in Snow, early 20th c.)

Frühlingstraum (no. 11) is a companion piece to Der Lindenbaum. Both represent idealized dreams with bright, major-key openings and memorable melodies. Both dash those dreams with minor-key verses underscoring the reality of the poet’s solitude. The polarities referenced are glaring as the winter sun on snow.

“Dream of Spring” features other Romantic fetishes, snowflakes and ice-flowers. Tenor Ian Bostridge’s wide-ranging monograph, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession chronicles these. Magic Mountain describes precise little jewels: gemstones, star insignia, diamond brooches, and Brontë’s Jane Eyre recalls “breathing on the frost- flowers with which the window was fretted.”

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 a group of dissident progressives, symbolized by their red and black. Byron and Müller were both familiar with this underground society whose homes would have been meeting places for the democratic revolutionaries. If less politically outspoken than some of his poet colleagues, Schubert was once arrested for “suspicious activities.” He set coded poems of friends and colleagues in songs which bring his politics, allegiances, and unspoken loves out of the closet.

(Friedrich, Tree with Crows)

The other potent image in Rast concerns the Wurm. From his twin-poled Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, William Blake’s “The Sick Rose” 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 exceptional Schubert interpreters of the 20th century, Benjamin Britten. His 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 the twisting image more range and power.

Samuel Beckett loved Schubert’s music, particularly Winterreise. The penultimate of his Texts for Nothing reads like existential stage directions for Schubert’s cycle:

It’s a winter night, where I was, where I’m going, remembered, imagined, no matter, believing in me, 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…

(Friedrich, Wanderer over a Sea of Fog)

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!”)

Our poet addresses his Ex just 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, five species of 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.

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 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 –

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” is how one of the original producers billed this contemporary sequel.

(Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild)

Abridged listening guide: the “walking motion” of the first song’s incessant quavers (8th notes) are echoed and varied across the cycle in songs 10 and 20, among others. The wind-tossed “weather-vane” in the 2nd song is the first example of striking unison textures. The stinging staccato “frozen tears” in no. 3 exemplifies 19th c. “word painting.” The dissonant keening of voice against piano depicts the “burning grief” in no. 6. The agitated rhythms which open no. 8 mirror the Wanderer’s tripping. The bright Posthorn of no. 13 in dialogue with the rustic Waldhorn of no. 5. The high-soaring tessitura and circling patterns tone-paint the crow in the 15th song. Syncopated rhythms scatter the falling leaves in no. 16. The rattling chains and barking dogs in no. 17 hasten the poet’s protracted leave-taking. The eerie evocation of the hurdy-gurdy in the 24th song makes for a unique and enigmatic finale.

Benjamin Britten spoke of meeting Schubert in a dream which “blessed the following days in a way that I have seldom remembered.” The prolific British composer, pianist, conductor, and impresario summed up Schubert’s late-period burst of creativity:

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.

(Britten and Pears, wintering in Venice)

Director’s Note: This new staging of Winterreise is inspired by the work of Samuel Beckett and John Cage. The "journey" is an interior monologue happening while the artist is alone in the studio. I created it using a Fluxus-style “Event Score,” a script with proscribed actions, elements of which are left to chance.

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