A Song Cycle by Franz Schubert
Set to 24 poems by Wilhelm Mülle
Written in 1827, Winterreise is often lauded as the enduring testament to Schubert’s greatness as the most important composer of German art song or lieder. It is an astonishing fact though that when it was written, it was done so in relative obscurity. Schubert was drawn to Müller’s foreboding and bleak poetry possibly due to his own romantic circumstances (or lack thereof) and undoubtedly his depressive physical fragility due to him suffering heavily with the final stages of syphilis, which would take his life the year after the cycle’s composition. Winterise was composed in two twelve-song parts across the year and received baffled reviews from those present at its first outing. Why this was, we don’t know exactly, but we can definitely hazard a guess:
Firstly, there are few characters to relate to; our protagonist begins his journey and never meets anyone else other than the hurdy-gurdy player in the final song. The cycle is bleak and its main subject matter is emptiness, desolation and grief, mostly containing flashbacks and memories, all of which lead to the gloomy present for the wandering figure. The cycle’s text is also richly layered, full of both genuine ardent feeling and dark romantic irony, verging on an overly direct and sarcastic bitterness in tone that asks more questions than it answers. Finally, whilst it is more common for song cycles to have an obvious story line which links the songs, Winterreise is more tenuously linked, by an overriding psychological and emotional atmosphere. Though a story does emerge from these songs, it is certainly not a traditional narrative , but moreover a deeply personal study of the inner character of this Wanderer.
Perhaps, it is precisely because of this vague and inherently ambiguous ‘story’ which so inspired this glorious composition from Schubert nearly 200 years ago, that this cycle speaks so powerfully to interpreters of lieder today; leading to the wildly varied and glorious performances which have captured the imagination of pianists and singers alike: It is so open to interpretation that each performer has the chance to create something new every time we sing it. Winterreise stands out amongst Schubert’s oeuvre: a darkly yearning, intensely Romantic, and painfully intimate work from a man who continues to inspire us here at Ukaria today.
There is possibly no better way to summarise the writing of these songs than to quote Richard Stokes who Chad and I have had the pleasure of working with on this performance today,
“[It is] unbearably poignant that this great genius who was not always appreciated in his lifetime and who only had one concert devoted entirely to his own works, and who, as far as we know, never enjoyed a loving and consummated relationship, should pour out his heart in these wrenching songs of unrequited love”
– Morgan Pearse