This introduction is essentially a copy from the Winterreise Part I posting. These are the last 12 songs that Schubert wrote.
Schubert’s Winterreise is a song cycle for piano and male voice of 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller set to music by Franz Schubert. These are some of the last pieces that Schubert created. Müller was apparently an anglophile, and he was heavily influenced by Byron, especially Byron’s poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (see Wikipedia Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage ).The Byron poem is an example of the Byronic hero, which is something that Müller tried to emulate in his poetry. I am going to go out on a limb and say that while Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was a best-seller across Europe, Müller’s poems were not. And the reason for that is that Müller was not an exceptional poet and Byron was. Schubert had a tendency to set mediocre poetry to beautiful music, and I’m afraid that these poems are no exception. So, why is this one of the most famous song cycles that Schubert ever wrote? He has taken the chaff and made it into gold. The combination of the music and the poetry is much more that the poetry alone.
What is Winterreise about?
This is actually not an easy question to answer. Let’s start with the name of the song cycle – Winterreise. First, there is no definite article in the German. This is unusual. The title should be Die Winterreise, or the Winter’s Journey. The title itself is somewhat stark and bleak without the definite article. Second, a story that runs through the 24 poems can be pieced together. A young man arrives in a town in May. There, he befriends a family and is invited to live with them. He falls in love with the daughter, and his love is returned, or so he is led to believe. However, the daughter rejects him to marry a wealthy man with the approval of her parents. It is now winter, and the hero leaves his adopted home in the dead of night after writing a farewell message to his beloved. As he leaves the town, crows shower him with snow from the roofs, and he begins a painful journey, constantly tortured by memories of his past happiness. On his journey, he is joined by a raven. Eventually, he arrives at another town, where it seems that he stays for some time as he writes of the post arriving there. The song cycle ends with a particularly bleak image. An organ grinder has a place near the town, where he plies his trade, ignored by the townspeople and harassed by dogs. It is ironic that in this final poem, the poet asks if the organ grinder will set the poet’s songs to music, which is something that Schubert eventually did.
What the cycle really is about is running away from strong emotions and utter desolation. It is also about the unwillingness to act on strong emotions. Even if the poems are not necessarily congruent, this theme runs through all of them and unites the song cycle. The imagery used tends to unite the poems; that is, images of frozen water, of glaciers, of tears piercing snow and ice, etc.
Some things of note:
I am only posting the last 12 of the 24 songs; the others have been put up in an earlier posting.
The songs are sung by Lotte Lehmann, one of the greatest opera singers of the 20th century. By the time that these songs were recorded (1941), her voice was certainly not what it had been in 1920, but she brings a remarkable expressive quality to these works. In fact, I think that these songs are sung better by her than by any man whom I have heard.
There is a book by Ian Bostridge about Winterreise. I really am at a loss as to what to say about it. Bostridge seems to find great meaning in mediocre poetry. If you wish to read something about Schubert or Winterreise, then get a copy of “Schubert, the Complete Songs”, by Graham Johnson. It is worth the money.