The chill winds of Schubert’s Winterreise

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator, International Piano and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 20.02.2016

It’s a crowded field, but to my mind there are never too many variations of Franz Schubert’s late masterpiece, the Winterreise (Winter Journey) song cycle. Each singer and each pianist brings personal touches to bear on these 24 songs and the heavyweights are all there on CD: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with Alfred Brendel, and again with Daniel Barenboim; Peter Pears with Benjamin Britten; Peter Schreier with Sviatoslav Richter. The list goes on.

Not to be overlooked in this pantheon of greats is Ian Bostridge, the lanky, modest English tenor who creates drama and anguish in his operatic performance of these songs of love, suffering, despair, madness and death. He has programmed the cycle in recital more than a hundred times worldwide over a span of some 30 years.

Bostridge’s silky tenor molds the guttural German into pure musical tones, and the piano part becomes a shared experience rather than an accompaniment. In this video clip he sings the entire collection with pianist Julius Drake.


But it is the new and beautifully produced book by Bostridge, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), that will perhaps give him his place in history. In 500 lavishly illustrated pages, he analyzes the songs individually for the music-loving layperson, explaining the historical context and how he came to be hooked. 

You think you don’t like German lieder? This book may well change your mind. The song titles reveal the tone of these songs, for example, Frozen Stiff, Flood, Backwards Glance, Loneliness, Last Hope, Delusion.

In quasi-conversational prose, Bostridge tells the story of Schubert’s life and the lyrical poetry of Wilhelm Müller, not quite saying what others say – that Schubert gave so much of himself to these songs that he died shortly after, emotionally exhausted. (He also had syphilis.)

Schubert’s friend Joseph von Spaun wrote some three decades later that “the state of excitement in which he (Schubert) wrote his most beautiful songs, and especially his Winter Journey, contributed to his early death.” He was 31 when he died in Vienna in 1828.

Ian Bostridge as seen by the author, Michael Johnson

Bostridge brings a self-deprecatory tone to his writing, pointing out that he has “no technical qualifications” to do a complete musicological job on these songs. He avoids “cataloguing modulations, cadences and root positions.” Indeed, he thinks it may be an advantage that he “never studied music at university or music college”.

To leaven the story, he cites Bismarck, Goethe, Thoreau and others with reflections on song and nature and he takes detours to look at literature, politics and Schubert’s own fortunes as a star composer in 19th century Vienna.

Bostridge also bumps up against dozens of writers who have tried to explain the magic of Winterreise, including the grande dame of German lieder, Dr. Susan Youens of Notre Dame University, South Bend, Indiana. Her most recent book, Winter Journey: Schubert’s Winterreise, covers much of Bostridge’s ground but in more technical language aimed at the music academic. Where they come together is in their praise of poet Müller’s simple couplets, some no more than a couple of stanzas. Youens notes that many others have also tried to undo Müller’s “battered reputation as a second-rate poet”. 

Readers can judge for themselves. Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree), translated into English, tells a touching love story:

 

At the well before the gate

There stands a linden tree;

I dreamt on its Cloud

So many a sweet dream.

 

I cut into its bark

So many a word of love;

In happiness and sadness it drew

Me back again and again.

 

Bostridge was not born to music. He first read modern history at Oxford, then history and the philosophy of science at Cambridge. Finally in 1990 he was awarded a doctorate at Oxford and taught history and political theory at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He became a full-time singer in 1995, aged 30.

Perhaps because he lacks conservatory discipline, he feels free to tell some professional secrets about singing for a living. Rehearsing and memorizing German verse posed problems that he solved as they arose. And I was taken by his observation that the last song, Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man) is one he prefers not to rehearse before a recital so that a spirit of spontaneity can provide “the inspiration of the moment”.

He harbors a special affection for the Hurdy-Gurdy Man, describing the common audience reaction when it ends: “A mute, stunned applause usually follows, which can swell into noisy acclaim.” That silence before the storm is evident at the end of the video clip above. 

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