Winterreise (‘Winter Journey’), D911
Some works are quick to fuel myths. Such is the case of Schubert’s most famous song cycle, which specialists have been debating for almost two centuries. Do these 24 songs portray ‘the simple story of a spurned lover leaving a town in winter’? Or should we be taking a metaphysical perspective, seeing in this work ‘the disillusionment in the face of an existence that leads ineluctably towards death’? Schubert’s own life inclines us towards the second interpretation. Four years had passed since Schubert’s setting of Die schöne Müllerin (‘The Beautiful Miller’s Daughter’), to texts by Wilhelm Miller, the same poet as the author of Winterreise; but nothing else is the same. In 1823, Schubert had been infected with syphilis, which debilitated him. It is well known that this disease cast him into a slough of anguish and shame. His friend Johann Baptist Mayrhofer wrote ‘The rosy hue had been wiped from his life. For him, winter had set in.’ Indeed, as the end drew near – in 1828 – the Trout sank into the abyss, and his affliction took over.
It is in this crepuscular context that the present score originated, its palette shifting away from shades of midnight blue, vesperal vermilion and mauve vapours of enchanted forests, before it finally restricts itself to an exclusively monochromatic vision. There is an absolute sobriety here in the musical rhetoric, as if to cauterize some never-ending suffering. It must be said that Müller’s verses – he would die not long after Schubert, at the age of 32 – lend themselves to such bleakness; after all the first song of the collection is entitled Gute Nacht (‘Good night’). From one verse to the next, we follow this wanderer as he roams in despair, numb with cold, his fate promising nothing but bitter illusions. Step by step, the hostility of nature will coalesce with the narrator. The last green leaf falls from the tree. The narrator’s tears are either frozen through lack of emotion, or burning with resentment. The footsteps of the separated lovers vanish in the snow. The river that once murmured is now frozen. Rest offers nothing more than the conscience of the serpent that stirs within him. If he dreams of spring, he awakens in darkness. The postman who makes his heart beats faster has no correspondence to deliver. Even the sun is worthless. ‘Als noch die Stürme tobten, war ich so elend nicht,’ the poet confesses in Einsamkeit (‘Solitude’: ‘While the storms were still raging, I was not so wretched’) – itself the prelude to the poignant questions of Der Wegweiser (‘The Signpost’): ‘Was vermeide ich denn die Wege, wo die andern Wanderer geh’n? Suche mir versteckte Stege auf verschneiten Felsenhöh’n? (Why do I avoid the paths other travellers take, instead seeking out high paths over snow-covered peaks?’)
The second half of the cycle, composed after the death of Beethoven – a guardian figure if there was ever any such – calls to mind the words of Alfred Einstein, writing of a work that stops at the threshold of insanity. All rhythm is worn out; the piano coagulates in marmoreal stasis; the words break off, becoming almost recitative. The shadow turns towards the mystical, the melodies becoming hymn-like. Goethe himself mocked the tastes of the dark Romantic soul, who all ‘write as if they were ill, and the whole world an infirmary’. Let there be no doubt about the genuine sorrow of the Viennese composer: his crow (Krähe) is no less legitimate than Churchill’s black dog. Besides, what Romanticism called melancholy – was this not known as depression a century later? One thing is certain: the words chosen by Schubert, at the age of 31, are words of farewell. His protagonist, in Der greise Kopf (‘The grey head’), is overjoyed to find himself prematurely aged, before realizing with disappointment that it is the snow that has turned his hair white. ‘Wie weit noch bis zur Bahre’! (‘How far to the grave, still!’). In Im Dorfe (‘In the village’), that terrible utterance ‘Ich bin zu Ende mit allen Träumen; was will ich unter den Schläfern säumen?’ (‘I am done with dreams; why should I want to remain among slumberers?’) We are reminded of Michel Schneider’s astutely expressed verdict: ‘These 24 stations of Schubert are ones without either a cross, or a path.’ Nevertheless, for all the D minor of the opening, alongside other bleak tonalities, it is impossible to tell of the happiness that was without expressing what that happiness was. An echo, perhaps, of Dante’s ‘Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria’ (‘No greater sorrow than to recall times of happiness amid misery’). From which we come to the sublime, ambivalent quasi-insanity that runs through this scrapbook: let us think here of Auf dem Flusse (‘On the river’) (the fateful pendulum of its opening a prefiguration of the testamentary Ständchen (‘Serenade’) from Schwanengesang), or indeed, in the face of the frost, the memory of running water acts as a sticking plaster over the pain of an unsettling excitement. But also Der Lindenbaum (‘The linden tree’), one of the few songs in the major, which does not forget that the tree it depicts remains a symbol of serenity, despite the extinguished memories that it reawakens. If the Erlkönig used spells to lure a child into his snare, this trunk no longer needs to be hidden. ‘Komm her zu mir, Geselle,’ it sighs, ‘hier findst du deine Ruh!’) (Come here, friend; here you will find peace!’)
Although originally intended for a tenor voice, the cavernous gravity of Winterreise has made it a sacred pinnacle for baritones. And, indeed, for all composers in the lieder genre, so perfectly does the voice match the soul of the piano. When Schubert’s friends first heard this collection, they were ‘dumbfounded by [its] bleak atmosphere’. Schubert shot back: ‘These songs are my favourite of all, and you will appreciate them too, eventually.’ For what had shocked his friends was not art, but death – this death that the composer, twelfth in a family of fourteen children of whom nine had died prematurely, could count on his fingertips. Schneider wrote: ‘The destination of this winter journey is death’. We are no longer surprised that Schubert never travelled; and we remember that we all return to our childlike state in the end.
Translation: Saul Lipetz