I would I had bestowed that time in the tongues that I have in fencing, dancing and bear-baiting: O, had I but followed the arts!
– From “Twelfth Night”, Act 1, Scene 3
Lacking both linguistic skills, and any real knowledge or understanding of how music works, I really am not the right person to write about lieder – the form where, more than any other, words and music merge.
For someone who writes a blog devoted mainly to literary matters, I am frequently shamed by my lack of linguistic skills. Even my mother tongue, Bengali, I can read with confidence only with a Bengali-English dictionary within easy reach. French I can read up to a point, but that point is well short of the stage where I can enjoy its literature; and I am easily lost when the language is spoken at conversational speed. The other European languages which I wish I knew in order to read their literatures – German, Italian, Spanish, Norwegian (there’s Ibsen), and, perhaps above all, Russian, I am ignorant of. And as for the classical languages, I once again draw a blank. The remedy to all this is obviously in my hands: learn those languages, dammit! Well, maybe that is something I can do once I am retired: it is, for various reasons, not for now.
On top of my lack of linguistic skills, there’s my lack of understanding of matters musical. Oh, I can pen easily enough descriptions of what certain works of music make me feel, but as soon as we turn to anything resembling analysis – you know, all that stuff about harmony or counterpoint or whatever – I find it impossible even to feign some understanding. So, these two great shortcomings on my part – my lack of linguistic skills, and my lack of understanding of how music works – should really mean that I am doubly unqualified to write anything on lieder, German art songs, where so much of the artistry resides in the conjunction of the language and the music – in the way the two come together. But I am nonetheless determined, on the grounds that this is after all my blog and I can therefore write about what I want, to rush in where I really should fear to tread: for this blog was intended to give me a platform to sound off about matters on which I feel passionately, and there is little I feel more passionately than Schubert’s Winterreise, the Winter’s Journey. This cycle of twenty-four songs has haunted my mind for a great many years now, and even though I do not know German, I have followed it so many times with both the original German text and with the translation, the linguistic barrier really does not seem that great. No doubt the work would make an even greater impact on me if I did know German, but I really cannot imagine any impact greater than the one it makes on me even without that knowledge.
The original poems are by Wilhelm Müller. Not a name as well-known as, say, Goethe or Heine or Schiller, but, I am reliably informed, a poet more than merely competent. I am obviously not qualified to judge these works as poems; however, given how inextricably these poems are now linked with Schubert’s music, I’d imagine that even those who know the German language well may find it difficult to judge the quality of these works purely as literary works. But these considerations need not detain us here: whatever the relative contributions of Müller and of Schubert to the finished song cycle, we may acknowledge the searing impact the cycle never fails to make. I have heard it live a few times – the most recent hearing last year at the Wigmore Hall, where we made the unlikeliest of family outings to hear baritone Gerald Finley and pianist Julius Drake give a quite stunning performance – and I have more recordings of the piece than may seem reasonable to any sane mind. But Winterreise is not about sanity: it is about obsession, and it generates amongst its admirers an obsession perhaps comparable to the one it depicts. There are as many ways of interpreting these songs as there are musicians capable of performing them, and each new performance, each new recording, is a new venture into these still obscure and mysterious reaches of the mind.
Schubert re-arranged the order of the songs. Thus, we get from the beginning a picture of deep winter– the very first song tells of “road shrouded in snow”, and subsequent songs tell us of the ice, the frozen river and so on – while, as late as the sixteenth song in the cycle, we are given an autumnal picture of leaves falling from the not-yet-bare branches. But this is a minor consideration: what matters is the emotional continuity of the work – a work which opens in darkness, and moves on steadily, step by trudging step, into a darkness even more profound and all-encompassing, and, possibly, greater even than the darkness that Müller had envisaged. The story, such as it is, is much the same as that of Schubert’s earlier song cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin (also set to poems by Wilhelm Müller): boy, rejected by girl, loses the will to live and succumbs to thoughts of death. This is not in itself, perhaps, a particularly interesting story; indeed, in its outlines, the story may even seem clichéd and hackneyed: the sorrows of a jilted lover possibly form the most common theme of songs of all ages and in all cultures. But in both these cycles, this old, old story is mysteriously transformed. And, despite apparent similarities, the two cycles are markedly different. In Die Schöne Müllerin, we witness joy transformed into despair, but Winterreise is even darker: here, we have no direct depiction of joy: despair is there from the beginning – the repeated piano chords opening the first song anticipating the weary trudge the protagonist later makes, longing no longer for his lost love, but only for death. Whatever joy there is in Winterreise is but joy remembered – remembered with pain, and with bitterness. And unlike Die Schöne Müllerin, Winterreise does not end with death: that, indeed, is part of the tragedy. Even death, so devoutly wished for, is denied the protagonist. Instead of death, we find at the end something even more strange, even more enigmatic. And the whole thing seems somehow to transcend the mere sorrows of the jilted lover: lovers, after all, are frequently jilted, but few, one imagines, alienate themselves so utterly from the rest of mankind, and wander through the unpeopled bleakness of the winter landscape, without rest and seeking rest, seeking only extinction.
Schubert’s music takes us into very extreme states of mind. We begin to wonder after a while if the protagonist of this cycle, the singer of these songs, is entirely sane. To begin with, he longs for those earthly delights that he feels can never be his – not merely his lost love, but human companionship, the warmth and comfort of the sleeping villagers who will never know his despair. He dreams of spring, but the only flowers he can see are those painted on window panes by the frost and ice. This may all seem like the self-dramatising of adolescence, but Schubert’s music tells us otherwise: whatever we may feel on reading the words alone, any knowing smile is wiped off our faces by the almost unbearable intensity of the music, depicting a seemingly endless, steady trudge through the snow and ice. The singer sees a crow following him, and imagines the crow waiting for him to die so it can then pick at his body: “let me at last see constancy even to the grave,” he reflects. He begins to hallucinate: a “friendly light” seems to dance before him, and he is eager to follow, even though he knows this is but an illusion.
In the last five songs, we enter into even deeper realms of darkness. He sees signposts, pointing to various towns and villages; he describes himself as “ohne Ruh’ and suche ‘Ruh” – without rest, and seeking rest (Schubert sets this line to the most passionate of musical lines); but then, for the last stanza, the passion subsides into a deeply sinister monotone: he can see but a single signpost now, possibly a signpost of the mind, which points him to a road he must travel, and from which none has returned.
“Der Wegweiser”, sung by Christoph Prégardien (tenor), with Andreas Staier (fortepiano)
The next song is called “Das Wirthaus” – The Inn – but this inn is a graveyard. Here, he lies down, hoping never to wake; but even here death is denied him: even this inn turns him away. The next song is manic – a furious, hysterical outburst that ends with the lines “If there is no God on earth, we ourselves are gods!” And in the penultimate song, he sees three suns in the sky: he wishes for all three suns to set, as “I would feel better in the darkness”. And now, having taken us into the heart of madness and of hysteria, we have the enigmatic final song, where the singer sees an old organ-grinder, who, starving, frozen, barefoot on the ice, ignored by all and seemingly oblivious to the dogs snarling at him, plays as best he can:
And he lets it all go by, everything as it will…
And the protagonist finishes this mighty piece with lines of the utmost tenderness and humility:
Strange old man, should I go with you?
Will you turn your organ to my songs?
What can this mean? What does this strange old man symbolise? To say that he symbolises Death seems to me too pat an answer: to see the protagonist finally seeing Death in the form of an old man seems too simplistic a solution to the complex of feelings and emotions Schubert’s music inspires in us at this point. Could this old man be, perhaps, a projection of the protagonist himself into the future? After all the anger, the bitterness, the madness and the hallucinating, can he be finally resigned merely to dumb, uncomplaining endurance? Perhaps. I personally prefer to see the old hurdy-gurdy man not as a symbol at all, but simply as no more than what he is – an old man, starving and frozen, inured almost to pain and to suffering. And for the first time in the entire cycle, right at the very end, the singer feels kinship with a fellow human being, and compassion for someone other than himself. I find it hard not to be reminded of that scene in King Lear:
Come on, my boy: how dost, my boy? art cold? I am cold myself.
I don’t know whether Müller’s poetry on its own can take us into the realms of King Lear, but combined with Schubert’s music, it does. And whatever perverse element in me urges me to return repeatedly to Shakespeare’s most terrible play urges me to return also to this most visionary of works. I have made countless winter’s journeys over the years.
[The English translations of these songs are taken from the translations by Mari Pračkauskas, which appear in the liner notes of the recording of Winterreise by Matthias Goerne and Alfred Brendel, on the Decca label.]