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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Schubert's Winterreise: Part One

People who know me well will know that, as a rule, I am rather dismissive of attempts to draw parallels between the external circumstances of a particular time in a composer’s life and the music produced during that period. Composers can sometimes reflect their own good or bad times in their music, but they can often write music diametrically opposed to their personal emotions.

It’s hard to escape, though, the connection between Franz Schubert’s life in 1827 and the composition of his second song cycle. In that year - the year in which he turned 30 - Schubert’s friends noted that he was melancholy, solitary, even depressed. One of his friends, the poet Johann Mayrhofer, even said, “life had lost its rosiness and winter was upon him”. In 1827 Schubert also wrote his second song cycle. Called Winterreise (Winter Journey), Schubert’s cycle reflected, or possibly even magnified, his gloomy state of mind. He himself called them “terrifying songs which have affected me more than has ever been the case with any other songs”.

Like his earlier cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin (discussed in detail in an earlier post in this blog), Winterreise sets poems by Wilhelm Müller. Schubert wrote the 24 songs of the cycle in two bursts. The first twelve were written in February of 1827 when he was unaware of the other poems in Müller’s cycle. When he discovered the remaining twelve he set them to music in October of the same year, making the cycle of 24 songs as we now know it.

Schröter: Wilhelm Müller (c. 1830)

It’s generally regarded that in all Schubert’s songs the piano is the equal of the voice in portraying the emotions of the text, but in Winterreise this collaboration seems to be raised to a new level. Both piano and voice carry equal responsibility for expressing the outer and inner levels of meaning of the poetry. One might accurately say that a very special type of singer is required to sing this cycle, but it is equally so that a very special type of pianist is required as well.

For the purposes of this blog post, I’m glad that a fine recording of the cycle has been posted on YouTube featuring two wonderful artists. The tenor Christoph Prégardien is joined by Andreas Staier, who plays a Viennese fortepiano made around 1825.

Christoph Prégardien

In performance this cycle can take about an hour an a quarter, and the journey is intense for all concerned, performers and audience. For this reason I’m going to devote two posts to Winterreise, dividing the songs into the two groups of twelve as Schubert composed them.

The first twelve songs of Winterreise describe a sequence of emotions felt by a man as he leaves the house of the woman whom he loves but who has rejected him. In leaving the house - and the woman who has rejected him - he walks into the wilds of winter, embarking on a physical journey which reflects his inner turmoil. In capturing both the outer journey of the body and the inner journey of the heart, this Winter Journey shows both Müller and Schubert at the heights of their expressive powers.

The first song is called Gute Nacht. By moonlight the man steals away in secret from the house of his beloved. Their love had grown, and her mother had even suggested marriage between her daughter and the man, but suddenly she has fallen in love with another. He leaves, writing “Good night” on the gate and leaving his footprints in the snow.

The relentless plodding of the piano suggests a determined trudging through the snow, while the vocal lines - moving downwards then upwards - suggest a journey as well. [listen]

The change to the major key in the final stanza of that song marks the bitter sweet emotional twists and turns of the man’s mind throughout this cycle. The fact that Schubert changes back to the minor key at the very end shows that darkness and above all cold hang over this wintry journey. Many of the songs in Winterreise are marked by a movement between minor and major tonalities.

The second song is Die Wetterfahne (The Weathervane). In leaving the woman’s house the man notices the weather vane on the roof changing direction as the wind blows. The analogy with what he thinks of the woman’s shifting emotions is very clear. One translation of the second stanza reads: “He should have noticed sooner the symbol displayed on the house so he wouldn’t ever have expected to find a faithful woman within.” The song ends with another very brief switch between minor and major to reflect this. [listen]

Gefrorne Tränen (Frozen Tears) is the third song, describing the tears which fall as ice from his cheeks. The man feels though that the heat of the feelings within his heart should make his tears able to melt the Winter’s ice. The drops of icy tears are clearly audible in the piano part. [listen]

In the fourth song the man looks vainly for the woman’s footprints in the snow where once they walked arm in arm. He wants to kiss the ground and weep on it, to dissolve the ice and recall the places they once walked together. But the flowers are dead and her image is frozen inside him. The title of the song, Erstarrung (Numbness), describes how he feels. [listen]

The next song is Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree). This depicts the ache of when a favourite place becomes somewhere too full of memories to be endured. This tree was once a place in which he carved words of love; now he passes with his eyes shut. Again, alternations between major and minor keys permeate the music as the bitter present collides with the happy past in the man’s mind.

At the start we hear in the piano a figure which clearly suggests the wind in the leaves of the tree, calling out to the man to rest, but soon the wind seems to be saying something altogether more sinister. He recalls this hours later but it suggests a rest of a far more permanent kind as a hint of suicide enters his thoughts. [listen]

In the sixth song we see the man dissolve in tears in his heartbreak. Called Wasserfluth, the title can be translated as “torrent” or “flood”. It not only refers to the tears he weeps into the snow, but to the fact that in the spring the melting snow will carry his tears back to the house of the woman who has spurned him.

Schubert resists the temptation to write typical “watery” music here. The mood is more frozen, static, as if the weeping of the man incapacitates him. To me this is one of the “coldest” songs in the whole cycle. [listen]

The twin images of water and ice are carried into the next poem, Auf dem Flusse (On the Stream). The frozen river - normally bubbling but now locked in ice - is an image of his heart. It beats under a frozen surface. The man etches the name of his beloved in the ice, at which point the music moves in to the major key.

The piano part in this song is extraordinary. Starting out as simply as one could possibly imagine, it grows in importance as the song progresses, with ever-shortening note values and eventually - in the last stanza - even carrying the main melody while the voice seems to take leave of the real world. [listen]

The man is freezing because his boots have holes in them, eager to leave, stumbling. But in the next song, Rückblick, he casts a “backward glance”, thinking of happier times and longing to return to the house of his beloved. When he first came to this town the larks sang, the trees bloomed, the streams ran clearly and maiden stole his heart. The piano in this song not only portrays the wild winter weather but the turmoil of the man’s heart. Yet again, the minor key represents the agonising present, the happier major key the happier past. [listen]

The ninth song is called Irrlicht (Will o’ the wisp). The man has been led off the road and into the darkness by a will o’ the wisp, but he professes not to be bothered by this as joy and sorrow alike are all ephemeral and deluding. All roads lead to their goal: springs flow into the sea, sorrows lead us to the grave. [listen]

Rieder: Franz Schubert (1825)

There is irony of the title of tenth song, Rast. This means “rest” and it marks the first break in the man’s physical journey. But while he might have reached a hut to rest, worn out by his trek through the snow and wind, yet his emotional journey is unrelenting and continues in his tortured mind. The sting of pain in his feet is reflected by the unending sting in his heart.

The changes from minor to major and back again happen sometimes from bar to bar in this song. The physical pace may have slackened, but the emotional pain has, if anything, accelerated. [listen]

The eleventh song is Frühlingstraum, and in this “dream of spring” the man imagines himself in flower-filled meadows, hearing birdsong. Schubert paints this in elegant music which could almost have been written by Mozart or Haydn. In his dream he hears the cock crow but awakens to find it’s the sound of a crow in the freezing darkness. When this happens, the music jumps from the 18th to the 19th century, with the squawk of the crow clearly audible in the piano.

He then sees patterns of flowers in the ice on the windows then dreams again of his love, only to be woken again by the crow. The song ends with the painful questions: when will the leaves again be green, and when again will I hold my love in my arms? In keeping with his harmonic signals thus far, Schubert ends the major key questions with a final phrase in the minor. [listen]

The final song in the first half of Winterreise is called Einsamkeit (Loneliness). It summarises the man’s feelings of total abandonment. There is a change in the weather; the storm may have passed and the sky may be clearer, but this just makes it worse. The world seems brighter, but he is still alone and this hurts even more.

This was of course where Schubert originally thought the story ended when first encountered Müller’s poems. The man is left alone, with the listener wondering what might have become of him. As the mid-point in the final cycle it has a different impact, but for now - and for this post - the man is left alone with his pain:

As a dreary cloud moves through the clear sky, when in the crown of the fir tree a faint breeze blows, so I travel my road, onward with sluggish feet, through bright, happy life, lonely and unrecognised. Oh that the air should be so still! Oh that the world should be so light! When the storms still raged, I was not so miserable. [listen]

So ends the first half of Schubert’s Winterrerise; I’ll discuss the second half of the cycle in my next post. The emotional and physical journey from the house of the beloved, described in the first twelve songs, is supplemented in the remaining twelve by suggestions of hope which only serve to add to the man’s torment. Eventually he finds a way forward, but it’s a way to resignation.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in June, 2008.

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