Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Schubert: Winterreise, Part 1

And now we come to one of the most remarkable pieces of music by Franz Schubert, his great song cycle "Winterreise" (which perhaps should be "Die Winterreise" but that's not how it appears on the title page of the score). Before we get into the cycle itself, I want to back up a bit and trace my own, perhaps odd, reception of this music.

I was born in the 50s and my musical development was influenced by a lot of the music of the 60s. The reason for this was, while my mother was a musician, a violinist, she was not a classical one, but rather played what is called in Canada "old-time music", that is, jigs and reels and other traditional music. She called herself a fiddler. So, while I was surrounded by music my whole life, it didn't really capture my interest until the middle 60s when I was a teenager. I started listening to the rock and pop music of that time: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Eric Burden and the Animals, the Incredible String Band, Cream and a host of others.

Within a year or so of having taken up the electric guitar (first bass and then six-string), I started writing songs and wrote forty or so by the time I was twenty. In this phase of my life the most formidable and substantial musical works that I was familiar with were the albums of the Beatles. This was a time in which Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and the White Album were released. There were even minor efforts made with Sgt. Pepper's to make it into something like a "song cycle". And then, in my twentieth year, I discovered classical music (Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, Schubert Unfinished Symphony, Bach Mass in B minor) and that pretty much changed my life.

Soon after I attended university as a classical music major and one of the most important courses I took was something called "Vocal Techniques". Now as curriculum went, this was pretty much a nothing course. In my first year I was in music education and this was a course designed to equip prospective music teachers with some basics in case they had to teach choir. As courses went, it was very minor compared to the big, important courses like Music Theory and Music History. But what made the difference was the teacher. She was a very fine classical singer and I have no idea of how she got stuck teaching this course. But what she did was have us actually learn something about singing and how she did that was require us to learn, from memory, some lieder. I learned "Heidenröslein" by Schubert and "Wenn ich in deine Augen seh" from Dichterliebe by Robert Schumann and performed them in a student concert. This involved some private instruction from the teacher which was probably my first individual encounter with a real classical musician.

So this is the context for my encounter with the song cycles of Schubert. To me they are like miraculous albums of songs that the Beatles might have written if they lived two hundred years ago and had a lot more musical genius. Don't get me wrong, in my book, the Beatles were musical geniuses. But Schubert is pretty much unexcelled as a song writer. The other thing is that I have a tiny bit of insight into what it is to sing Schubert. And I too am a songwriter. (We are editing the recording of my set of songs this week, so next week I might be able to post a song or two.)

We just looked at "Die schöne Mullerin" but "Winterreise" is on a whole other level. DsM is all about falling in love, about sunshine, flowers, babbling brooks, turning millwheels and summer. True, things get a bit dark towards the end with a rival lover, being rejected and either contemplating suicide or actually doing it. But compared to W, DsM is a walk in the park. The later cycle begins with the aftermath of lost love. The whole unfolds in a winter landscape with the poet wandering, shedding frozen tears. It begins where DsM ends. The last song in DsM is the brook singing a lullaby and W begins with the poet singing "Gute Nacht" ("Goodnight") and leaving in the dead of night. Here are all the twenty-four songs with a synopsis from Wikipedia:

1. Gute Nacht (Good Night) “A stranger I arrived; a stranger I depart.” In May he won the love of a girl and hoped to marry her. But now the world is dreary, and he must leave, in winter, in the dead of night, finding his own way in the trackless snow. “Love loves to wander—from one person to the next.” He writes “Good Night” on her gate as he passes to show he thought of her.
2. Die Wetterfahne (The Weathervane) The weathervane on her house creaks in the shifting winds, mocking him and showing the inconstant hearts inside. “What do they care about my suffering? Their child is a wealthy bride!”
3. Gefrorne Tränen (Frozen Tears) He notices he has been crying and chides his tears for being only lukewarm so that they freeze. They come out of his heart hot enough to melt all the winter’s ice!
4. Erstarrung (Frozen Stiff) He looks in vain for her footprints beneath the snow where they once walked through the green meadow and wants to melt away the snow and ice with his tears. He has nothing to remember her by except his pain,. She is frozen in his heart; if it thaws, her image will flow away.
5. Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree) The tree, a reminder of happier days, seems to call him, promising rest. But he turns away, into the cold wind. And now, miles away, he still hears it calling him: “Here you would find peace.”
6. Wasserflut (Flood) The cold snow thirstily sucks up his tears; when the warm winds blow, the snow and ice will melt, and the brook will carry them through the town to where his sweetheart lives.
7. Auf dem Flusse (On the Stream) The gaily rushing stream lies silent under a hard crust. In the ice he carves a memorial to their love. The river is an image of his heart swelling up powerfully beneath the frozen surface.
8. Rückblick (Backwards Glance) He recounts his headlong flight from the town and recalls his springtime arrival in the “city of inconstancy,” and two girlish eyes which captivated him. When he thinks of that time, he would like to go back and stand silently in front of her house.
9. Irrlicht (Will o’ the Wisp) The false light of the will-o’-the-wisp has led him astray, but he’s used to that. Every path leads to the same goal. Our joys and sorrows are but a trick of the light. Every stream reaches the sea, every sorrow its grave,
10. Rast (Rest) Only now that he has stopped to rest does he realize how tired & sore he is. And in the quiet he feels for the first time the “worm” which stings him inwardly.
11. Frühlingstraum (Dreams of Spring) He dreams of springtime and love, but wakes to cold and darkness and the shrieking of ravens. He sees frost leaves painted on the window. When will they turn green? when will he again embrace his beloved?
12. Einsamkeit (Loneliness) He wanders, like a sad and lonely cloud, through the bright and happy Life around him. “Even when the storms were raging. I was not so miserable,”
13. Die Post (The Post) He hears a post horn. “Why does my heart leap up so?. There’s no letter for you! But maybe there’s some news of her?”
14. Der greise Kopf (The Grey Head/ The Old Man's Head) Frost has turned his hair gray and he rejoices at being an old man. But when it thaws, he is horrified to be a youth again: “how far it is still to the grave.”
15. Die Krähe (The Crow) A crow has been following him. It has never left him, expecting to take his body as its prey. “It won’t be much longer now. Crow, show me constancy unto death!”
16. Letzte Hoffnung (Last Hope) He gambles on a leaf quivering in the wind. If it falls from the tree, all his hopes are dashed. He falls to the ground himself and weeps over the “grave” of his hopes.
17. Im Dorfe (In the Village) Dogs bark, and all the people are asleep, dreaming of success and failure, finding on their pillows what eluded them in life. ”I am done with all dreaming. Why should I linger among the sleepers?”
18. Der stürmische Morgen (The Stormy Morning) The storm is an image of his heart, wild and cold like the winter.
19. Täuschung (Deception/ Delusion) A dancing light wants to lead him astray, and he is glad to go along. “Behind ice and night and horror” it shows him a warm, bright house and a loving wife within. Illusion is all he has..
20. Der Wegweiser (The Signpost) “Why do I take secret ways and avoid the other travelers? I’ve committed no crime. What foolish desire drives me to seek the wastelands?” He journeys endlessly, seeking peace and finding none. A signpost points the way: “I must travel a road where no one has ever yet returned.”
21. Das Wirtshaus (The Inn) He comes to a graveyard and wants to enter. But all the rooms in this “inn” are taken; he resolves to go on his way with his faithful walking-stick.
22. Mut! (Courage) He shakes the snow from his face and sings cheerfully to silence his heart’s stirrings, striding into the world, against wind and weather: “If there’s no God on earth, then we ourselves are gods!”
23. Die Nebensonnen (The Mock Suns) He sees three suns staring at him in the sky. “You are not my suns! Once I too had three, but the best two have now set. If only the third would follow, I’ll be happier in the darkness.”
24. Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man) Behind the village stands a hurdy-gurdy man, cranking his instrument with frozen fingers. His begging bowl is always empty; no one listens to his music, and the dogs growl at him. But his playing never stops. “Strange old man. Shall I come with you? Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to accompany my songs?”
Even Schubert referred to this cycle as "terrifying" and so it is. But it is a special kind of terror, one that exhilarates and enriches. There is a possibly apocryphal anecdote about Schubert that after he performed at one of those special Viennese salons he was approached by a woman who chided him that his music was always sad. He replied, "Madame, all music is sad." Well, not Haydn! But you get the point.

I will need a whole other post to talk about this song cycle, so for now, I leave you with a couple of clips of performances so you can give it a listen. First, a recording from 1962 with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore:

Next Ian Bostridge, tenor and Julius Drake, piano:

Finally, bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff and pianist: Maria Joao Pires:


Anonymous said...

Brilliant post. Looking forward to the next installment. The influence of Schubert on modern-day songwriting cannot be overestimated. The Beatles, of course, but also the classic American Songbook (Gershwin, Cole Porter, Berlin, Kern, Rodgers, etc.) Sadly, the concept of a short, well-crafted song seems to be getting lost. So people don't even appreciate any more how difficult it is to craft a great song. To think that a band like U2 can be among the world's most popular acts while it's shown incapable of crafting even *one* great song...

Re. the clips, DFD and Quasthoff are self-evidently off the charts. (My all-time favorite German singer, however, is Fritz Wunderlich.) I respect Bostridge a lot as a musician and a scholar. But I go back and forth in my appreciation of his song cycles. Half the time I find it sublime and the other time I wonder how he can get away with such mannerisms, poor German phrasing, weird rhythmic breaks. That said, I still find listening to him hugely enjoyable. Go figure.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks so much!

I've been familiar with Fischer-Dieskau for a long time, of course, and recently have found Bostridge interesting, but just listening to the opening of "Gute Nacht" sung by Quasthoff sent chills up my spine. Wow.