Franz SCHUBERT'S WINTERREISe
March 2, 2014
Robert Blake, piano
Alfred Newman Recital Hall, University of Southern California
Live recording by Louis Ng.
Schubert’s best-loved vocal music is often characterized by its melodic appeal, the naturalness of its text-setting, and its utter charm. Despite the profundity of many of Schubert’s songs, they remain eminently approachable by even the most casual listener.
But even though there are certainly moments in the song cycle Winterreise (1827) that display the characteristics mentioned above, the scale of the work, the bleakness of its subject matter and the absence of direct narrative certainly prevent one from describing the cycle as a whole as “eminently approachable.” One of Schubert’s close friends, Joseph Spaun, after hearing Schubert sing and play through the cycle at the composer’s home, reported that he had liked only “Der Lindenbaum” (no. 5). Schubert himself once described the cycle as “horrifying;” but the composer also went on to say, “I like these songs more than all the rest, and you will come to like them as well.”
Audiences and performers alike have an undeniable fascination with Winterreise to this very day. But how can an audience member, approach such a vague and hopeless narrative? How can a listener make sense of the disjunct chronology and fragmented plot of Müller’s poems? While everyone will find their own way of grappling with this cycle, I offer here my personal approach in the hope that this may inform some of the performance decisions that I have made regarding this cycle.
When I started to study Winterreise, I began to question why, of all of Schubert’s (eminently approachable) vocal works, this opaque piece should find a particular resonance with me. Ultimately, I found the answer in my own personal background.
I was born in the United States, but was raised overseas. Scholars such as David Pollock and Ruth Hill Useem describe Americans raised overseas as “global nomads” or Third Culture Kids. The idea behind this is that the child raised overseas belongs neither to the parents’ culture (the first culture), nor to the host culture (the second culture), but rather to a distinct “third culture” that incorporates elements of both.
Past research has focused on the benefits of being a TCK: independence, adaptability, and open-mindedness. But there is also a darker side: a lasting sense of not belonging, of “rootlessness”, and ongoing issues of unresolved grief. As Liliana Meneses aptly describes they are noted for feelings of being perpetual outsiders; Kathleen Gilbert and Rebecca Gilbert describe the “perpetual [liminal] state in which [TCK’s] sit, perched on a threshold of ‘in-between-ness.’ They are between cultures, between worlds, between identities.”
While not intending to cast myself as the biographical parallel to Winterreise’s Wanderer, I do see in the cycle many of the themes that affect so many TCK’s: isolation, marginality, liminality, and unresolved grief. It is these self-same issues that impel the narrator on his journey and compel him to continue onwards even after its hopelessness is clear to all, including himself.
The issue of liminality, of sitting “on a threshold of ‘in-between-ness,’” is one that bookends this cycle. From the opening statement of the entire cycle in “Gute Nacht” (“Good Night”), “as a stranger I entered in,/as a stranger I leave again,” we see the narrator’s sense of not belonging. By the end of the cycle, in “Der Leiermann” (“The Organ-Grinder”), the narrator, finding solace and acceptance in neither nature nor society, is inspired by the organ grinder. “Do you wish to turn your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?” he asks the organ grinder. The organ grinder is never free from society, but also never accepted by it (“No one wishes to hear him, no one looks at him,”) and therefore lives “perched on a threshold of in-between-ness.’”
Other instances of this in-between-ness, and feelings of rootlessness can be seen throughout the cycle. In “Frühlingstraum” (“Dream of Spring”), the narrator observes that “you all laugh about the dreamer / who saw flowers in winter,” clearly setting himself apart from the rest of society. Passing through a sleeping village in “Im Dorfe” (“In the Village”), the narrator finds himself driven out by dogs (“Let your barking drive me out, you wakeful dogs,”) unrecognized by the watchful animals as belonging in society. In “Der Wegweiser” (“The Signpost”), the Wanderer says, “I have done nothing / that should make me shy away from people,” and yet he finds himself nonetheless driven ever onwards. Finally, stumbling upon a graveyard in “Das Wirtshaus” (“The Public House”), the Wanderer realizes that even in death he does not belong with the rest of society.
The issues of grief in this cycle are more difficult to explain. Why, if the narrator’s “girl spoke of love, the mother of marriage, even,” should the Wanderer have felt compelled to leave in the first place? Why, if he truly has “done nothing / that should make [him] shy away from people,” should he feel compelled to continue ever onwards? These questions remain unanswered in Müller’s text, but his genuine love for the maiden is made clear, in statements such as, “Passing by, I write ‘Good night’ on the gate, so that you might know I thought of you,” (“Gute Nacht”), and “When will I hold my beloved in my arms?” (“Frühlingstraum”). Yet his grief and bitterness are palpable, starting as early as “Die Wetterfahne” (“The Weathervane”) where he mocks the wind for searching inside the house with the weathervane “for the image of a faithful woman;” “What do they care about my pain?” he asks. “Their child is a rich bride.” The recurring motif of the Wanderer’s hot tears, juxtaposed with the frozen water of the rivers over which he crosses, pose a problem for the narrator. Flowing water might indicate a return to spring, life, and hope; and yet, in “Auf dem Flusse” (“On the River”), the narrator carves his grief into the icy mantle of the river, and in “Erstarrung” (“Numbness”) he realizes that, “should my heart ever melt again, / the image of [my beloved] will also flow away.”
Where does our narrator find refuge from the grand emotional forces that seem to be arrayed against him? Over the course of the cycle, realizing that reality holds no comfort for him, he retreats further and further into madness to find solace. In “Das Irrlicht” (“The Will-o’-the-Wisp”), the narrator seems resigned, saying, “I am accustomed to the ways of madness, / every path leads to its goal: / our joys, our sorrows, / all the game of a will-o’-the-wisp.” Later, in “Täuschung” (“Delusion”), he even seems glad to have found a safe haven, saying, “For me, delusion alone is a prize!” In the penultimate song of the cycle, “Die Nebensonnen” (“The Phantom Suns”), the Wanderer seems no longer able to confront reality. “Three suns I saw standing in the heavens,” he says at the beginning of the piece. By the end of the piece, there is only one sun remaining in the sky, and the narrator laments, “now the best two are gone. / If only the third would follow along behind! / In the darkness, I would be better.”
There is no single way to grapple with Müller’s enigmatic texts, and Schubert’s inspired setting thereof. Indeed, the vagueness and flexibility of these texts, the ability to connect with them on so many levels, could very well have much to do with their continuing popularity. However, I hope that the above discussion, incomplete though it may be, may be of some assistance in understanding the decisions that were made in undertaking this specific performance of this piece.