A few months ago as winter, itself, seemed interminable here in Maine, I found myself (in my capacity as a staff writer for Fanfare Magazine) reviewing my fifth recording of Schubert’s Winterreise in almost as many months. I remember having written at the close of one of the reviews recommending the disc, that “One could never own too many Winterreises”, and my editor must have taken me at face value. So I was besieged with Schubert’s song cycle in its original piano format for tenor, baritone, or mezzo, as well as versions with guitar, string quartet, and even a purely instrumental arrangement without Wilhelm M├╝ller’s poetic texts. If few of these made the impact on me that the Jonas Kaufmann- Helmut Deutsch recording had the prior year, they were, nonetheless, fascinating in the way they demonstrated the perennial mystique of Schubert’s work – for many the pinnacle of Lieder singing.
I had first discovered Winterreise in my college years, becoming acquainted with its beauties through recordings by Hermann Prey and Dietrich Fischer Dieskau and by hearing Dieskau live in New York. But the song cycle became something of an obsession for me when my then-employer, baritone Thomas Hampson, with Wolfgang Sawallisch at the piano, first undertook it at Carnegie Hall in 1997 and asked me, as he did for most of his concerts at that time, to write the program notes. I immersed myself in the context of the music and poetry and began what has been something of an ongoing journey for the better part of two decades.
Recently, along with reviewing new recordings of the cycle, I devoured Ian Bostridge’s magnificent new study, Winter’s Journey The Anatomy of an Obsession. Not only does the tenor examine Schubert’s cycle from his own intimate musical perspective – as a noted interpreter – but he probes the literary, historical, socio-political even etymological contexts of the work, delivering a refreshingly astute analysis of a mammoth musical landmark.
Written in the year before Schubert’s untimely death in 1828, Winterreise is a work of many faces that speaks to every age. Many artists, like Hampson, have waited to perform it in their maturity as singers, though in many ways Schubert’s cycle is as much a tale of youthful Romantic rebellion, of dreams and hopes crushed and frozen in an endless existential nightmare. What is the perennial appeal of the work? And why would an artist of the stature of Fischer-Dieskau record it no less than seven times or Jonas Kaufmann begin to tackle its profundities in his thirties and continue to explore them on an ongoing basis?
In his book, Bostridge, after some 487 pages of insightful prose, concludes that the work continues to remain a mystery for him and in the shared performance experience that is a recital. But, he adds:
“Art is made from the collision between life and form; it does not exist in some sort of idealized vacuum. Only by investigating the personal and the political, in their broadest sense (and this is especially true of Romantic art) can we properly assess the more formal aspects. This book ….is no more than a small part of the continuing exploration of the complex and beautiful web of meanings - musical and literary, textual and metatextual – within which this Winter Journey works its spell.”
Perhaps the key to the exploration is the fact that the work is a journey; it is a chronicle of flux, begun at the end of a life’s cycle in the frozen misery of grief and loss. It is the tale of a protagonist who, despite the stasis of the winter wasteland which engulfs him, finds himself compelled to travel on, in search of elusive rest. It is the eternal story of the Wanderer, the mythic figure who from antiquity to Romanticism and into the modern world, traverses life – and even death – in search of understanding. For Schubert and his poet Wilhelm M├╝ller the Wanderer was the quintessential Romantic hero – or perhaps by Schubert’s day anti-hero, with antecedents throughout the history of Western culture and with fellow incarnations in the composer’s own 19th century.
In Frankenstein Mary Shelley writes: “The snows descended on my head . . . Cold, Want, and fatigue were the least pains I was destined to endure. I was cursed by some devil and carried about with me my eternal hell ….Follow me, I seek the everlasting ices of the north.” Her protagonist, Victor Frankenstein is a Wanderer whose demons lead him into the icy regions of the Self. When the tormented scientist pursues the monster – his brainchild and dangerous Doppelg├Ąnger, he embarks on a frozen journey into the recesses of his own psyche – a journey in which the elements become metaphors for the long winter of the heart. This same theme with its myriad Romantic repercussions is the controlling metaphor of Winterreise.
Born in Dessau in 1794 Wilhelm M├╝ller was a child of the Age of Revolution – a philologist, historian, and poet, whose interests embraced Greek and Roman literature, German folklore, opera and drama, and contemporary German and English poetry. He was an admirer of the Shelleys, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and especially Byron, whose wanderlust and philhellenism he espoused. Begun in 1822 and completed in 1824 (the year of Byron’s death on the plains of Missolonghi), M├╝ller’s twenty-four poems are rich in both Romantic imagery and universal archetypes. As Bostridge observes, this poetic cycle was not born in isolation, but rather within a contemporary context which had roots in the past and outreaches into the future.
Throughout the cultural history of the Western world, the Wanderer appears in several distinct manifestations. In the epic vein he is the hero with superhuman traits (Achilles, Odysseus, Siegfried, Parsifal, or Dante), or a god with anthropomorphic ones (Wotan-turned-Wanderer, the transmigratory Zeus or the peripatetic Finn and Oisin of Anglo-Celtic legend). In the picaresque genre the voyager appears as a pilgrim (Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales), Crusader (Rodrigo of La Poema del Cid or Roland of Le Roman de Roland or Scott’s Ivanhoe), rogue (highwayman MacHeath or amorous bastard Tom Jones) or the questing idealist (Candide or Don Quixote). In travel literature he surfaces as the impressionable hero of the Bildungsroman – the traveler experiencing a Wanderjahr as educational voyage (Wilhelm Meister, Gulliver, Fanny Burney, or Tristram Shandy). And finally, he debuts as the Romantic Wanderer, who synthesizes the properties of his prototypes, while grafting onto them the quintessential nineteenth century emotions of Sehnsucht (longing), Heimweh (homesickness) and Weltschmerz (world-weariness). Infusing the journey with a new psychological dimension, the nineteenth century Wanderer marches into the twentieth with the epic journeys of Joyce’s Ulysses, Hemingway’s rootless heroes, or Salinger’s adolescent outsider in Catcher in the Rye.
M├╝ller found inspiration in his contemporaries, the English Romantics. From Blake’s mystic poetry he took the notion of a divided human psyche, the Spectre, journeying through life in search of its shadow, the Emanation in order to be reunited and find a wholeness and creative voice. From Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner he drew inspiration from the hoary sailor who expiates his guilt by recounting the horrific tale of his polar voyage into the icy regions of nihilism and of his ultimate redemption in the waters of life. As already noted, Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein offers an astounding number of parallels to Winterreise. Both protagonists are Faustian questers, misunderstood and neglected Promethean poet-creators, whose vain thirst for the absolute brings immeasurable suffering. Mary Shelley’s subtitle to the novel was The Modern Prometheus, a reference to her husband’s poem, Prometheus Unbound, in which the poet-in-chains suffers unspeakable agony until his soul can be integrated into the larger human one. P.B. Shelley also spoke to M├╝ller in terms of his Alastor in which the half-human, half spirit Wanderer journeys through frost and thaw in search of self and in his early treatise on atheism which espouses the Feuerbachian declaration found in Winterreise’s song “Mut”: that “Since the gods have deserted the earth, men must themselves become gods.” And lastly, there are the two great journey poems of Byron, M├╝ller’s idol. In Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a young rebel-outcast leaves his homeland, traveling through Europe confronting history experientially, attaining the visionary realm where his identity as poet – who remains a professional wanderer – is at last secure. In his masterwork Don Juan, the pessimism that was to echo through Byron’s German counterparts, is tempered by brilliant satiric wit. And between these two stands his verse drama Manfred, whose half-mad hero contemplates plunging from the icy peaks of the Jungfrau before resolving “not to slumber or die” but rather to journey on.
All these works resonated with M├╝ller as did his great German predecessors and contemporaries. He shared Goethe’s reverence for the German folk tradition and immersed himself in the Bildersprache, the imagistic language of the Romantics. He felt a kinship with the poets Eichendorff, Chamisso, Uhland, Lenau, and most of all Heine, from whom he borrowed the notion that poems were meant to be sung.
The kindred spirit who would set M├╝ller’s poems to music was Franz Schubert who created song cycles not only for Winterreise, but also Die sch├Âne M├╝llerin. The composer’s friend Franz von Schober introduced him to M├╝ller’s work in late 1826, and Schubert began composing his cycle in 1827, applying his own order to the poems (which differs from the published order of M├╝ller’s opus), and completing the work in November 1828 one month before his own death.
Given the irony of Winterreise’s being among Schubert’s last works and given its death-bent theme, there is a tendency to see the cycle in autobiographical terms. But in reality, the winter’s journey is metaphor and myth, a symbolic voyage which may be interpreted on several levels. The first is, of course, the literal: the story of a man who departs his native village, disappointed in love, and wanders through a winter landscape. But the narrative inconsistencies bespeak a journey motivated by inner time – a symbolic series of stations that are more mindscape than landscape. More than anything, Winterreise is a dream vision, the Wanderer’s journey through mind and heart to the depths of his soul.
The action takes place within the human psyche. The cycle begins and ends in winter, though the shades of white – that hue composed of all colors and lights – reveal an infinite variety of images. There are the ice and snow which suggest the death of the heart; the chill torpor which freezes memory ironically protecting against its loss; then ice which forms a hard crust on which the Wanderer can engrave an epitaph, but which masks the seething torrents of emotion beneath. Pitted against wind and weather, the Wanderer is seduced by numbness (“Der Lindenbaum”) and then urges himself on (“Mut”) declaring boldly that even in the face of flying snow, he will continue to sing. Echoing Feuerbach, the two Shelleys, and Byron, to the tempos of a drinking song, the Wanderer hurls his liberating credo: “If God forsakes the earth/Then we, ourselves, are Gods!”
The contraries of ice- water and fire – play powerful roles as well. Tears freeze and pierce the snowy crust; snows thaw and merge into the floodwaters to flow back into memory. From the apocalyptic vision of red flames on a wintry morning (“Der st├╝rmische Morgen”) to the flickering lights of a warm house and a loving soul (“T├Ąuschung”), firelight offers dynamic counterbalance to ice, bringing an oxymoronic and Blakean energy to the cycle. Perhaps the most dramatic use of fire is in the penultimate song, “Die Nebbensonnen” where the Wanderer is mocked by three suns, which may symbolize faith, hope, and love, or the eyes of his lost beloved. Whatever their meaning, the image, combined with the fearless melody become searing depictions of the Wanderer’s battle with inner darkness.
Colors and seasons are juxtaposed as well. White is contrasted with green: the tracery of icy leaf patterns on a window pane recalling spring or the graveyard’s funeral wreathes imagined to be the heurige garlands of the inn. Black offsets white in the startling revelation of “Der greise Kopf” or in the ominous figure of the crow, who like Coleridge’s albatross or Keats’ nightingale, reminds the Wanderer that “he is half in love with easeful death.” The crow accompanies Schubert’s protagonist, to whom he ironically utters the marriage vows, “Treue bis zum Grabe” (faithful until death). Autumn is seen as a halfway house between summer and winter, life and death, and the Wanderer poses in the sixteenth song, “Letze Hoffnung” Shelley’s question from “Ode to the West Wind”: whether winter is an end to itself or the harbinger of spring?
Throughout Winterreise, as in all of Romantic literature, Nature holds a mirror to Man,; her rhythms reflect human tempos. In the Schubert-M├╝ller cycle, time is set to an eternal clock. It is difficult to make sense of Winterreise in terms of real hours, because the action consists of dreams, hallucination, flights of madness, and waystations of sanity as the Wanderer struggles to find equilibrium. Time stops and starts and stands still – sometimes sequentially, sometimes simultaneously as reality and fantasy diverge. At various points, the Wanderer reaches a crossroads of decision, most notably in “Der Wegweiser” where he courageously determines to take the road “from which none has returned.”
Just as time is metaphorical, so, too, is movement. All that which the voice and piano conjure as a feeling of walking is inextricably linked to the ebb and flow of the human heartbeat. The musical heartbeat is found in the interactions between piano and voice and in the rich diversity of tempos from breathlessness to galloping, languid aimlessness, and elegiac majesty. Throughout, the piano is the propelling force, trudging, hesitating, pausing, and finally finding an existential drone in the Leiermann’s cri de coeur – a tune that is resolving rather than relieving. Piano and voice, like the two selves of the Wanderer, enter into dialogue. The soul simultaneously strives with its Doppelg├Ąnger; the life force resists the death wish; the Wanderer who longs for rest/stasis gives himself up to everlasting flux. Perhaps the most shattering manifestation of the protagonist’s split personality occurs in “Der greise Kopf” when he looks into the mirror and imagines his hair white with age, only to be shocked back to the reality of his dark locks. As much as he desires to be his alter ego who is finished with life, he realizes that his own survival instinct and perhaps even his fate will not permit him to enter the looking glass.
A long and bitter road still lies before him after this climactic epiphany, It leads through nocturnal nightmares, to the abjuration of dreams, to the admission that illusion can embody the reawakening powers of the imagination, to the crossroads of “Der Wegweiser”, where, like Byron’s Manfred, this Wanderer questions why fate has marked him for everlasting voyaging and loneliness. The road, he realizes, does ultimately end in death, but now it is not the outcome, but rather the process which takes on supreme meaning. In his increasing acceptance of destiny and his rebellious confrontation with the dark unknown, the Wanderer is granted the final revelation of his journey.
In “Der Leiermann” the winter traveler encounters the barefoot hurdy gurdy man who plays relentlessly with numb fingers a haunting tune. The key shifts from major to minor, as the minstrel’s repetitive folk melody short circuits and resumes, signaling the Wanderer’s embrace of fate. In this grim image of the hurdy gurdy man, the Wanderer finally accosts his alter ego; they are equal poets of converging paths whose now creative journey promises only a long winter of suffering.
Schubert’s cycle ends with a kind of unanswered question to which the reply is an existential given. As the Wanderer, reintegrated with his alter ego Leiermann asks, “Whither next the journey? Who my partner? What the songs?,” another archetypal Romantic image springs to mind – that of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting of The Wanderer, in dark frock coat, back to the world, atop an Alpine peak staring off at the limitless horizon. Like the painted image, Schubert’s Wanderer-Minstrel is confronted by another white expanse far more daunting than ice or snow: the blank page onto which to write one’s future.
Winterreise listening recommendations:
Jonas Kaufmann, Helmut Deutsch 2014 Sony: 88883795652
Ian Bostridge, Leif Ove Andsnes EMI due 9/2015)
Thomas Hampson, Wolfgang Sawallisch 1997 EMI7243 5 56452 7
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Gerald Moore (1963) EMI 62787
Hermann Prey, Wolfgang Sawallisch (1998) Philips 422242