Leslie De’Ath is a Canadian pianist, conductor, author, chamber player, vocal coach and accompanist, who enjoys a varied career as both performer and pedagogue.
Mr. De’Ath is a Professor in the Faculty [...]
Winterreise (Winter Journey) was composed within two years of Schubert’s death, in 1827. It is often praised as the greatest of all song cycles, and with good reason. In this work Schubert pushed the boundaries of the melodic and harmonic language that prevailed in his day to the point where early performances met with consternation on the part of the listeners.
For at least one person at the first performance, the only comprehensible song in the cycle was Der Lindenbaum— at once the most folk-like and lyrical of the songs, and the least exemplary of the cycle as a whole. The sustained absence in this cycle, with few exceptions, of Schubert’s hallmark gift for seemingly effortless lyricism, is notable. It exemplifies the ready adaptability of his compositional style, matching as it does an extraordinary poetic cycle with equally iconoclastic musical gestures. The melodic line is focused almost exclusively upon declamation, embracing syllabic monotony (as in Die Krähe) as a metaphor for derangement.
Schubert sets one note per syllable almost exclusively throughout the 24 songs.
Impossible as it is to do justice to Winterreise in anything short of an entire book, we shall concentrate here on that most astounding and bewildering of all Schubert songs, Der Leiermann. As Richard Capell says, “Given a thousand guesses, no one would have said that the last song would be at all like this.” As with so many of Schubert’s finest Lieder, the musical utterance here is focused, simple, and telling. Its poignant impact derives directly from its restraint and economy of means, in which every note and every silence has a direct, palpable dramatic purpose.
Empfindsamkeit is a stranger here. Although the drama of Winterreise has been subjected to many interpretations, the message in Der Leiermann surely is one of alienation and derangement. We come to realize in this concluding song that, unlike the hapless youth of Die schöne Müllerin, who finds solace in death, the protagonist of Winterreise is condemned to survival. His solace is the poignant sanctuary of insanity.
The inescapable Angst of the other 23 songs can only be relieved by symbolically befriending the Der Leiermann (hurdy-gurdy man). They are fellow inmates of a Bedlam free to roam to no purpose. The hurdy-gurdy man is a wraith— a bizarre hero for our protagonist, rising supremely as he does above mundane need, passion and sanity. He walks barefoot on ice, oblivious to physical or emotional discomfort. His plate is empty both literally and figuratively. Our hero too turns his coat inside-out and joins him in his ghastly and ghostly ecstasy, eager to become his Doppelgänger.
The psychic disorientation that pervades Winterreise has curious parallels with another landmark of German literature and music—Wozzeck. Berg’s 1922 opera of that name, considered a paradigm of early 20th-century musical Expressionism, is based on a Büchner play that received its first performance in Vienna in 1914, but was in fact written in 1836, only a dozen years after Müller’s Winterreise. Büchner’s Woyzeck was left as a series of almost indecipherable fragments upon his death at age 23. It was written in the genre of epic theater, in which the drama is focused on the individual scene rather than on the unfolding of a continuous narrative. This montage approach is generally considered to be intentional on Büchner’s part, and not a result of incompleteness or sloppiness.
The ordering of the scenes is changeable without harmful effect, since events and experiences take place in random patterns, unfettered by considerations of cause and effect. Such an approach to drama, so tangible in the Berg opera, has obvious structural parallels with Winterreise. One can imagine many comparably effective reorderings of the poems and songs. Teetering on the brink of sanity, disillusionment with reality, hallucinatory distortion, aimlessness, alienation from society, and a constant preoccupation with the inner workings of the psyche, are shared themes in both song cycle and opera, in spite of the almost hundred years separating their creation. Büchner could well have known Müller’s cycle, and been influenced by it. I end these notes, like the poems, interrogatively: Is it too much to suggest that Müller’s work already encompasses the aesthetic of Expressionist drama, decades ahead of its time?
The fortepiano used in this recording was built by Johann Baptist Streicher in 1851, in Schubert’s native Vienna. Although it stems from a generation after the composer’s death, it is typical of the last decades of straight-strung, wood-framed fortepianos upon which Winterreise would have received many performances in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Its sound and action seemed appropriate to the music, and we felt that it served the cycle particularly well. Formerly part of the Edwin Buenk collection (Netherlands), it is now owned by the Faculty of Music at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.
An 1868 Streicher piano, also straight-strung and with a Viennese action, was given to Brahms, who used it as his studio piano until his death in 1897.
© Leslie De’Ath