Winter’s journeys

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.]

7 responses to this post.

  1. I thought this was going to be about the Ian Bostridge book. man, you’ve got to read the Bostridge book and tell us about it.


    • I’m waiting for it to come out in paperback, as I am too mean to buy the hardback edition!

      I certainly do mean to read Bostridge’s book, but thought I’d set down a few thoughts of my own before all my ideas get changed by Bostridge.


  2. Posted by Mark on March 31, 2015 at 2:48 pm

    You shouldn’t be so mean, Himadri – the Ian Bostridge book is worth buying in hardback as it’s so lovely. It serves as a textual and visual reference work as well as an essayistic guide and so is worth the extra pennies. Durability and all that.

    I sat down to check my email listening to Schubert’s sonata for arpeggione and piano and there was your new post!

    This was such a piece of synchronicity for me. I am new to lieder, having only recently discovered the pleasures of art song (making the rather peculiar transition from listening mainly to Seriously Heavy heavy metal to Schubert, Schumann, Strauss etc.). I’ve found myself thinking of art song: Where have you been my whole life? Poetry and music combined – perfect!

    Schubert is the absolute greatest of course. I can really relate to your obsessive need to acquire numerous recordings. My first two were by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (of course) and Hans Hotter. But I have acquired several more since then. My partner, Kora, who usually adopts a fairly zen attitude to my numerous musical enthusiasms has on this occasion really caught the bug too. We have been having “Winterreise Wars” over the last few weeks. She loves the tenors and I love the baritones and bass-baritones. However, she is winning the Winterreise War because she has begun to learn the songs and can now sing “Gute Nacht” rather well. She keeps texting me lines of Muller’s poems – and, in fact, did it earlier today because the weather has gone so wintery again up here in the North.

    I am curious to know if you like any English art song too? We are going for a holiday in Shropshire later this year so I have been listening to the numerous settings of Housman poems by English song composers. Ralph VW’s “On Wenlock Edge” is the best known cycle, but I like George Butterworth’s settings better.

    That said, after Schubert I have found the art song composer that I like the best is Peter Warlock. His cycle “The Curlew” (settings of Yeats) has really stolen my heart away.

    Excellent post, Himadri!


    • You’ve all convinced me! I have just placed an order on the hardback edition of Ian Bostridge’s book.

      I wonder if you and Kora can call a truce on the tenor vs bass-baritone war on Winterreise – and try a mezzo-soprano! Brigitte Fassbaender’s recording of it (with composer Aribert Reimann on piano) is hair-raising. More than any other interpreter, she accentuates the sheer terror of it all, and the end result really is quite unnerving. (My wife can’t bear to listen to it.)

      Winterreise was, of course, Fischer-Dieskau’s calling card, and he made at least seven recordings of it over the years (the last two made when his voice was, sadly, well past it). I have the recording he made in the mid-60s with Jorg Demus accompanying. I also have the venerable recordings with Hans Hotter & Gerald Moore (grave and sepulchral), and also a startling recording with Peter Pears and Benjamin britten. I suppose it’s fair to describe Pears’ voice as an “acquired taste”, but it’s a taste well worth acquiring. The protagonist here is an outsider from the beginning: he is, not to mince words – “odd”. “A stranger I came, a stranger I depart” he sings at the start, and one can see why he is such a stranger; right from the beginning, he seems set apart from the rest of humanity – he seems someone who has, even at best, never been particularly at home with his fellow humans. (That’s the impression I get anyway.) When he sees the crow following him, and he sings of constancy even to the grave, instead of any bitterness, he floats his voice seductively, almost as if the thought of death and of the crow picking at his corpse is something he finds attractive.

      Peter Schreier’s approach seems diametrically opposite. His is the angriest and most bitter of interpretations. (At least – the one he recorded with Andras Schiff: I haven’t heard the live version with Sviatoslav Richter.) The recent recording with Gerald Finley and Julius Drake is wonderful, with each step of the harrowing jouney projected with the utmost power and expressivity; and I am particularly taken with Matthias Goerne’s live recording with Alfred Brendel. I’ve long been a fan of Goerne’s beautiful velvety voice, and he sings especially that final song with such humility and tenderness, it seems like the most beautiful thing in the world.

      As I say – there seems no end to the variety of interpretations!

      I suppose tha major English songwriter is Vaughan Williams, but for some reason, i have a bit of a blind spot about him. I agree with you about Butterworth’s setting. And recently, I have been listening to a lot of Britten. His cycle “Winter Words”, which are settings of Thomas Hardy, is very dark and austere, and is a particular favourite.


  3. Posted by Mark on March 31, 2015 at 5:46 pm

    Yes, agree about Winter Words, which I have been listening to recently, not sung by Pears but by Anthony Rolfe Johnson. However I do like Pears’ voice a great deal and have the famous recording he and Britten made with Barry Tuckwell of the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings … plus some other cycles too.

    Glad you agree about Ralph VW – he doesn’t capture the quality of Housman’s melancholy for me.

    I think I might have had a half-daydream about you posting something on the subject of art song. It’s got to that point in life for me now where I rarely discover virgin territory arts-wise. And of course I wasn’t completely unaware of lieder and so on. But I had simply ignored it thinking it didn’t fit with me and I didn’t fit with it. Then suddenly it was there and it was exactly what I was looking for – partly to do with embracing getting older rather than resisting it, I think. I’ve found it enormously exciting, though the bank balance has taken a bashing in the last few months! There’s a certain online seller I use who has probably expanded his property portfolio recently.

    Some of your Winterreise recommends I am familiar with, but not others. I’ll have a listen.


  4. Posted by alan on April 4, 2015 at 2:22 pm

    I became aware of the Winterreise after reading Thomas Mann’s ‘The Magic Mountain”. I sometimes joke that I only managed to finish it because I was convalescing, but it also happens to be true. I doubt that I will ever have the time or energy to read any more of Mann – the lengthy pacing required an act of will to get through, but I still remember a creeping sense of evil, or at least of people subsuming their individual will in other forces, as it reached its conclusion.
    I recall the novel’s protagonist, Hans Castorp, taking an interest in Gramaphone recordings and specifically one of Schubert’s “The Linden Tree”. I rememeber Hans believing that the song represented something about the German national character.
    It made me curious enough to want to listen to the song. I was none the wiser afterwards, but perhaps I should try again.
    I sometimes wonder if people like Mann and Schubert were fully aware of what they produced.


    • I think what’s frightening is that the likes of Mann and Schubert knew exactly what they were producing: works such as Winterreise.or The Magic Mountain aren’t produced by accident. And they may themselves have been frightened by their own products.


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