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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Schubert's Winterreise: Part Two

This post is the second of two in which we’re looking at Schubert’s great song cycle, Winterreise (Winter Journey). This was composed in 1827 when the composer was 30 and it stands as one of the most enduring and moving monuments to his skill in setting poetry to music.

Winterreise sets poems by Wilhelm Müller and the 24 songs were written by Schubert in two blocks of twelve. The first twelve were composed in February of 1827 when he was unaware of the other poems in Müller’s cycle. When Schubert 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. In our last post we looked at the first twelve songs, charting the physical and emotional journey of a man who, in the depths of winter, leaves the house of a woman he loves but who has rejected him. Those songs ended with the man desperately alone and without hope; in Graham Johnson’s words, “...the wanderer shuffles off the stage with dragging footsteps...The broken chords of the final bars denote a broken man”.

In this post we’ll look at the remaining twelve songs and see what became of him. For the musical examples I’ll link to a beautiful performance of the cycle which 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.

Andreas Staier

Schubert’s personal frame of mind when he was writing Winterreise was painfully appropriate to the cycle’s mood. One of his friends noted that “life had lost its rosiness and winter was upon him”. Schubert himself called them “terrifying songs which have affected me more than has ever been the case with any other songs”. With the benefit of hindsight we can’t avoid noting that it was in the following year, aged only 31, that he died.

The second half of the cycle starts with Die Post. The nearly total darkness of the first half the cycle is dispelled, albeit briefly, with the opening of this song. Music in the Austro-German tradition is full of imitations of horns and we tend to lump horn calls together as they’re removed from our normal experiences. In Schubert’s time, though, horns had different sounds and different functions in daily life. Hunting horns had a particular sound, but in this song it’s the post horn which is invoked. The post horn - usually sounded from a coach - meant arrivals and departures, of people and of mail. The man in Müller’s poems has his hopes raised by the sound of the post horn: is there a letter from her?

As in the first twelve songs, Schubert uses the change of tonality from major to minor for intensely dramatic purposes. Here, when the man realises there is no letter, the horn calls subside and the music passes through the minor key. You can almost see his face fall... [listen]

There are still eleven songs to go, but such is the man’s disappointment at not receiving a letter from his beloved that she is not directly mentioned again for the remainder of the cycle. Of course, his love for her, and her rejection of him, underpins every note and every word of the remaining songs.

In Schubert’s earlier song cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin (the texts of which were also written by Müller), the boy found release from his unrequited love in death. Now, from this point in Winterreise, the thought of death as a release from the man’s torment also pervades the poems. Suicide, though, is not an option expressed here (unlike the fate of the poor boy in the earlier cycle).

The next song is Der greise Kopf (The Grey Head). Seeing his head looking grey with its covering of snow, he briefly imagines he may have rapidly aged and rejoices in the prospect of imminent death. But with the melting of the snow he realises death is, unfortunately, far away. Graham Johnson describes this song as being an “extraordinary mixture of portentous melody and unhinged recitative”, and there is indeed more than a hint in Schubert’s setting that the man’s pain is sending him mad. [listen]

In the first half of Winterreise there was a moment when the man slept and dreamed he was hearing the cock crowing, only to wake and find it was a crow. Now the crow makes another appearance in Die Krähe (The Crow). The key of this song is the same as the previous one, giving a strong sense of connection between the two. In the poem, the man describes a crow which followed him and he asks if the bird has come to claim his body. If old age isn’t able to bring him imminent death, maybe the image of the crow as an eater of carrion will suffice. At least then, he wryly notes, he would find some form of faithfulness which would last until death.

The piano part of this song is set unusually high for a Schubert song, with the innocent-sounding triplets taking on amore sinister intent as the song progresses. Only with the mention of the grave - the song’s final word - does the piano descend into the bass range and come to an uneasy rest. [listen]

The unbalanced state of the man’s mind is expressed powerfully in Müller’s next poem, Letzte Hoffnung (Last Hope). The man contemplates the leaves on the trees as they fall to the ground and pins his hopes on one leaf in particular. If that leaf falls, he too falls, into the grave of his hopes. As in the previous song, the word for “grave” is the last word of the poem.

Schubert’s accompaniment - and the setting as a whole - borders on the bizarre. The piano part is full of broken diminished chords which straddle bar lines, giving precious few moments of anchored pulse. The music barely settles into its home key; indeed it takes eight bars before any sense of home key becomes apparent at all. The trademark shift from major into minor occurs right at the moment the man identifies himself with the predicament of the leaf he’s staring at. The leaves fall at random and without any sense of logic; the man feels his life falling apart in the same way. [listen]

The next song is Im Dorfe (In the Village). The man’s wanderings have brought him to some small village in which dogs bark and people sleep, a village which he finds foreign and worthy of his contempt. The opening line of the poem mentions chains rattling and this is usually taken to be the meaning of the rumbling music played by the piano at the start of the song. However the second line mentions people sleeping and it’s entirely possible that this rumbling - with its sharp intake of breath afterwards - is a musical representation of snoring. Whatever the intent, Schubert actually changed Müller’s words in the second line. Müller originally wrote “Die Menschen schnarchen in ihren Betten” (people snore in their beds). For musical reasons Schubert changed this to “Es schlafen die Menschen in ihren Betten” (people sleep in their beds), but he seems to have kept the original idea of snoring in his mind when he wrote the piano part.

But at his core, the man is dismissive of this backwater, which only reminds him of how far he is from where he wants to be, both physically and emotionally. [listen]

After one of the longest songs in the cycle, we now have the shortest. Der stürmische Morgen (The Stormy Morning) lasts less than a minute and between the two songs we have yet again a shift from major to minor. The man sings of a viciously stormy winter’s morning, a perfect reflection of his own heart. [listen]

The man on his winter’s journey, though, is not mad. He has insight into his pain and the ways in which his mind is working. The nineteenth song in the cycle is called Täuschung (Illusion). The poem describes a bright light before the man, to which he yields despite his knowledge that its promises of warmth and love are false. He cherishes even delusion, and understands that it is delusion, such is his need for something to alleviate his pain.

This song is, according to Graham Johnson, the only example in all of Schubert’s Lieder of the composer re-using a melody from another part of his output. In this case he quotes a song from his opera Alfonso und Estrella, written about five years earlier. In the opera, the melody is used in a song describing a man lured to his death by beauty and false promises. The parallels with Müller’s journeyman are obvious. [listen]

Taken at face value that melody is so sweet and innocent, but knowing its dramatic intent makes us realise Schubert knew exactly what he was doing. The dancing light is a delusion, a lie; the man knows it. In the next song the real world thrusts itself back into his mind; the temporary delights of an amusing distraction, however bitter, are over.

Called Der Wegweiser (The Signpost), this song sees the man resume his frozen journey, both mentally as well as physically. The trudging steps are clear in both the piano part and the voice part. The man sings of the way he has chosen to take, asking what is driving him to choose paths avoided by others. When he protests his innocence the music shifts from minor to major, and when he resumes his journey (“restless and yet seeking rest”) we return to the minor. At the end he admits where he is going: he must travel a road from which no one has ever returned. [listen]

Death has been hanging over the man’s mind for so many of the songs in the second half of Winterreise. The next song is called Das Wirthaus (The Inn) but it’s no ordinary place of lodging which Müller and Schubert are describing here. It’s a graveyard and in this place, in the depths of winter, the man chooses to rest. He actually hopes to stay forever, meaning he wants to die, but there is, for him, no room at this inn.

The slowest song in the entire cycle, Das Wirthaus has religious symbolism in both text and music from start to finish. The voice part is like a hymn and the aching sadness of the man’s totally broken heart is, for us, heart-breaking. Schubert sets it in a major key, which makes it even more moving, and the move to the minor key for the final stanza - where the supposed inn turns him away, meaning he must live on in his pain rather than be released by death - is indescribably poignant. [listen]

Rieder: Franz Schubert (1825)

In Schubert’s ordering of Müller’s poems he places the next song, Mut!, in a different place to that of the poet. This poem (the title of which means “Courage!”) is, in Müller’s order, second-last, giving more of a sense of the man re-entering the real world by the time we get to the final poem. Schubert places it third-last in the cycle, swapping this and Die Nebensonnen. This seemingly small change is crucial to creating a totally different impression of where the man ends up by the end of his devastating journey.

Mut! tells us of the man deciding to take a defiant stand against his pain, to shake the snow off his face and to sing loudly to drown out his sorrow. If he refuses to hear what his heart is saying then he can go out into the world and be cheerful in the face of the storm. There’s even a trademark change from minor to major as the man claims to be his own god and thus in control of his fate. [listen]

But the psychologically-astute Schubert knew that such bravado is as hollow as it is loud. The return to the minor key at the end of Mut! suggested as much, and now, in the penultimate song, the man’s mind returns to listen to the pain in his heart once more. In reversing these two poems, Schubert totally alters the emotional ending of the cycle.

The second-last song is Die Nebensonnen (The Mock Suns) and the poem tells of the man seeing three suns in the sky, two of which set. The other remains to mock him and he longs for it also to set so he could be happy and in darkness. Much has been written about what Müller intended these suns to represent and opinion is widely divided in the literature. Suffice to say here that whatever they denote, the man longs for darkness and solitude. He’s not mad, but he is broken.

Schubert reflects this wish for darkness in the piano part, which is written entirely in the bass clef. When the man rejects the suns as belonging to others the music moves from the major into the minor, but even in its major key episodes there is little light in this song. One can only imagine the emotional world in which Schubert was living at the time which made it possible for him to write music like this. [listen]

And so we reach the final song. What will become of this man, in so much pain from losing the love of his life that he can’t even bring himself to mention her? Here in the final poem he sees a hurdy-gurdy player. The hurdy-gurdy was a medieval instrument which enjoyed a brief rebirth of popularity in the later 18th century, but by the 1820s, when Schubert wrote Winterreise, it was not only old fashioned, but also had associations with the poor, those who were hard up, those who begged.

A hurdy-gurdy

The man sees the hurdy-gurdy player in one sense as an allegory of himself. A shell, lost, aimless, despised, ignored. In another sense he sees the old man as his future. The final stanza - and the entire song cycle - ends on a question: “Strange old man, shall I go with you? Will you play my songs on your hurdy-gurdy?” [listen]

And there it ends. No blessed release from life by the intervention of death, as the boy had in Die Schöne Müllerin; this man’s pain will be worse because it will continue. And the master composer, Schubert, makes us feel that pain as well. It’s devastating.

The second half of Winterreise was composed in October 1827. It was a monumental year for Schubert, punctuated dramatically by the death of Beethoven in the March of that year, but marked by increasing recognition of Schubert’s genius in musical circles, both public and domestic, throughout Vienna. Yet at only 30 he was depressed; he was ill (it seems certain he was suffering secondary syphilis by this time) and he sensed very much his own mortality. Yet the year also saw him produce both his magnificent piano trios - those in B flat and E flat - and much else besides. Some 30 works were published and there were many performances both private and public of his music. Things seemed to be looking up.

Yet in the following year, in which he also worked feverishly and had public successes, his illness was never far away. By the end of 1828 he was on his death bed, and between fits of delirium (during which he sang incessantly), he managed to experience lucid moments which allowed him to undertake his last work as a composer, which was to correct the proofs of Part Two of Winterreise in preparation for their publication. He died on 19 November, 1828, at the age of 31.

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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