Arts - Winter 2015

Songs of Innocence and Experience

On Schubert’s sublime late vocal masterwork

By Ian Bostridge | December 10, 2014


Winterreise—Winter Journey—a cycle of 24 songs for voice and piano, depicting the sorrows of a young poet whose beloved has left him for another, was composed by Franz Schubert toward the end of his short life. He died in Vienna in 1828, aged only 31.

Schubert was renowned, even in his lifetime, as a song composer of matchless fecundity and as a master of seductive melody; the Winter Journey apparently discombobulated his friends. One of the closest of these, Joseph von Spaun, remembered 30 years later how Schubert’s circle had received the cycle:

For some time Schubert appeared very upset and melancholy. When I asked him what was troubling him, he would say only, “Soon you will hear and understand.” One day he said to me, “Come over to Schober’s today, and I will sing you a cycle of horrifying songs. I am anxious to know what you will say about them. They have cost me more effort than any of my other songs.” So he sang the entire Winter Journey through to us in a voice full of emotion. We were utterly dumbfounded by the mournful, gloomy tone of these songs, and Schober said that only one, “The Linden Tree,” had appealed to him. To this Schubert replied, “I like these songs more than all the rest, and you will come to like them as well.”

Another close friend, with whom Schubert had shared digs some years before, was the government official and poet Johann Mayrhofer. For him, Winter Journey was an expression of personal trauma:

He had been long and seriously ill [with the syphilis he had first contracted toward the end of 1822], had gone through disheartening experiences, and life had shed its rosy color; winter had come for him. The poet’s irony, rooted in despair, appealed to him: he expressed it in cutting tones.

Spaun confounded even more dramatically the personal and the aesthetic in his account of the cycle’s genesis: “There is no doubt in my mind that the state of excitement in which he wrote his most beautiful songs, and especially his Winter Journey, contributed to his early death.”

There is something profoundly mythologizing about these accounts, especially Spaun’s, which has a bit of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane about it—the dejection, the friends who miss the point, the sense of a mystery that will only be understood after the death of its progenitor. As against the persistent legend of “poor Schubert”—unappreciated, unloved, unsuccessful in his own lifetime—it is worth remembering that he earned well from his music, was welcomed into the salons of the well connected (if not the aristocracy), and received critical plaudits in addition to his share of brickbats. Schubert was probably the first great composer to operate as a freelancer outside the security and restriction of a church position or noble patronage. His music, played by most of the great instrumentalists of the day, was second only to Rossini’s for its popularity on Viennese programs.

Here is one contemporary review of Schubert’s Winter Journey, from the Vienna Theaterzeitung of March 29, 1828:

Schubert’s mind shows a bold sweep everywhere, whereby he carries everyone away with him who approaches him, and he takes them through the immeasurable depth of the human heart into the far distance, where premonitions of the infinite dawn upon them longingly in a rosy radiance, but where at the same time the shuddering bliss of an inexpressible presentiment is accompanied by the gentle pain of the constraining present which hems in the boundaries of human existence.

Despite the windy Romantic rhetoric, the writer has clearly perceived and engaged with what has become the acknowledged, canonical sublimity of the cycle—that transcendental quality that transmogrifies what could so easily be mistaken for a self-indulgent parade of disappointed love lyrics. For the initiate, Winter Journey is one of the great feasts of the musical calendar: an austere one, but one almost guaranteed to touch the ineffable as well as the heart. After the last song, “The Hurdy-Gurdy Man,” the silence during a performance is palpable, the sort of silence that otherwise only a Bach Passion can summon up. This silence is often extended, forming part of the shared experience of the piece; a silence performed as much by the audience as by singer and pianist. A mute, stunned applause usually follows, which can swell into noisier acclaim.

Acclaim? Acclaim for what? For the composer? For the music? For the performance? Is applause, and the performers’ acceptance of it, somehow impertinent? It often feels that way. The normal rules of the song recital are in abeyance. No encores are prepared or expected and, however enthusiastically the audience responds, none will be forthcoming. There is a sense of seriousness, of having encountered something above and beyond, something that cannot be expressed.

A sense of embarrassment or awkwardness can also arise between audience and performers that the applause does its best, eventually, to eradicate. A song cycle such as Winterreise is not rooted in aspects of sung or musical performance that tend to create a certain awestruck distance. Virtuosity is concealed, vocalism does not draw undue attention to itself, and the audience member must almost feel that he or she, too, is singing, and hence is implicated in the subjectivity that is being projected. Ideally, the audience identifies with the persona constructed on stage, embodied in sound by piano and voice, but inhabited and projected by the singer. Having gone so deeply into difficult places, having confronted each other across the footlights and opened up our vulnerabilities over what, at 70 minutes, is a considerable time span, a return to normality can feel unapproachable. End-of-concert rituals can help or they can impede. Sometimes it feels impossible to do the customary things—meet friends, have a drink, eat a meal. Solitude may beckon.

Piano-accompanied song, no longer part of everyday domestic life, has lost its one-time supremacy in the concert hall. The lied has become a niche product, even within the niche that is classical music, but Winter Journey is incontestably a great work of art that should be as much a part of our common experience as the poetry of Shakespeare and Dante, the paintings of Van Gogh and Picasso, the novels of the Brontë sisters or Proust.

I first came across the music of Franz Schubert and the poetry of Wilhelm Müller (who wrote the words of Winter Journey) at school, aged 12 or 13. Our miracle of a music teacher, Michael Spencer, was always getting us to do magnificently, even absurdly, ambitious musical projects. As a singer, and not an instrumentalist, I had always felt slightly outside the charmed circle, though we sang plenty enough fantastic music—Britten, Bach, Thomas Tallis, and Richard Rodney Bennett, for starters. When Mr. Spencer suggested that we perform something called “The Shepherd on the Rock,” I had no idea how brilliantly off the wall it was.

“The Shepherd on the Rock,” or “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen” in German, was one of the last pieces Schubert composed. The opening and concluding verses are also by Müller, but nothing could be further from Schubert’s great Winter Journey than this dazzling confection of virtuoso pastoral. A shepherd stands on a rock singing into the Alpine landscape before him. His voice echoes and re-echoes, and he remembers his lover far away. A grieving middle section is succeeded by an excited and excitable invocation of spring. Spring will come, the shepherd will wander, and he and his girl will be reunited. It’s the very opposite of Winter Journey.

Somewhere in a box in my attic is a tape of that school performance. I haven’t listened to it for a long time, but I do remember that the famous vocal challenges of the piece were unmet by my fragile treble. Anyway, I fell in love with the music but then promptly forgot it, this first encounter with the lieder tradition.

Step up another great teacher, this time a German master at senior school, Richard Stokes, whose deep, urgent, and infectious love of song infiltrated many, if not most, of his lessons. Imagine 20 or so 14- and 15-year-olds, in varying states of vocal health, bellowing Schubert’s “Erl-King” or Marlene Dietrich’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” in the language lab, and you get the idea. It was “The Erl-King” that made me fall in love with German song, with a passion that dominated my teenage years. One particular recording of it—played in our very first German lesson—seized my imagination and my intellect: the German singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, accompanied by the English pianist Gerald Moore. I didn’t yet speak German, but the sound of it and the drama that piano and voice together conveyed—sometimes honeyed, sometimes trembling, sometimes incarnate evil—were new to me. I got my hands on as many recordings of Fischer-Dieskau’s as I could, and I sang along to them, probably right through my voice change from treble to tenor: not ideal for my embryonic vocal technique, as Fischer-Dieskau was unmistakably a baritone.

Personal idiosyncrasy played its part in my lieder obsession too, as I used the music and the lyrics to work my way through the perils and pains of adolescence: Die schöne Müllerin (The Beautiful Miller Girl ) was perfect for someone of my very particular romantic disposition. I thought I’d fallen in love with a girl who lived on my street, but my clumsy attentions were first unnoticed and then spurned, and in my imagination, maybe in reality, she formed a liaison with a sporty type from the local tennis club. It seemed quite natural to tramp the South London streets near her house, singing Schubert under my breath, the songs of rapture and those of the angry reject. After all, the fair maid of the mill goes off with the macho hunter, not the sensitive singing miller boy.

Winter Journey was something I got to know a little later, but I was already primed for it. I heard two great Germans sing it in London—Peter Schreier and Hermann Prey—but I somehow managed to miss my only opportunity to hear Fischer-Dieskau perform it, with Alfred Brendel, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. I gave my own first public performance of Winterreise to 30 or so friends, teachers, and fellow students at St. John’s College, Oxford, in January 1985. People always ask me how I remember all the words; the answer is to start young. As this essay is published, I shall have been singing the cycle for 30 years.


This essay is adapted from Ian Bostridge’s forthcoming book, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments powered by Disqus