Winterreise D. 911 – Song cycle to poems by Wilhelm Müller

Composer: Franz Schubert (b. 1797 - d. 1828)
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Composer: Franz Schubert (b. 1797 - d. 1828)

Performance date: 06/07/2016

Venue: St. Brendan’s Church

Composition Year: 1794-1827

Duration: 01:15:00

Recording Engineer: Richard McCullough, RTÉ lyric fm

Instrumentation: T-solo, pf

Instrumentation Category:Duo

Artists: Mark Padmore - [tenor]
Paul Lewis - [piano]

For a
time Schubert’s mood became even more gloomy and he seemed upset. When I asked
him what was the matter he merely said ‘Well, you will soon hear and
understand’. One day he said to me, ‘Come to Schober’s today. I will sing you a
cycle of awe-inspiring songs.’ We were quite dumbfounded by the gloomy mood of
these songs, and Schober said he only liked one song, Der Lindenbaum. To which
Schubert replied: ‘I like these songs more than all the others, and you will
get to like them too’.
So wrote Schubert’s friend
Spaun in the spring of 1827, reminding us of the truism that most masterpieces
are ahead of their time.

It is hard not to see in this magisterial
and overwhelming work Schubert’s own story, with his desperation and loneliness
laid out for all to see; but accompanied by the steely will that drove him on
despite his terrible disease – he used to compose from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. every
day. The intense inner journey made by the protagonist from youthful despair to
the descent into utter isolation and horror eventually reaches a resigned but
stoic acceptance. The final desolate scene is absolutely bereft of any
artificially comforting solutions, but the final question – Willst du meinen Liedern deine Leier drehn? –
does make music the only possible answer.

Schubert’s music turns Müller’s poems about
a love-lorn wanderer into a tragic monologue on the human condition. The
haunting image of the hurdy-gurdy man standing at the edge of the village
playing his instrument to no-one but snarling dogs reminds us of Poor Tom and
King Lear’s cry: Thou art the thing
itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as
thou art.
In Shakespeare’s play, Poor Tom is the voice of truth; it is
better to be a beggar, despised by everyone, than to be forced to lie. This is
what Schubert’s wanderer realises. He has turned his back on the world where
parents marry off their daughter to the richest suitor, and where the girl
accepts this bourgeois solution rather than follow the call of love. He has
rejected the highways that most men use in order to follow the hidden paths in
the mountains. He is tempted to turn back, he dreams of happier times, but he perseveres until he meets the
hurdy-gurdy man, and something approaching pity awakens in him.

The drama begins in a comfortable town with
its colourful streets and tall towers, surrounded by rich meadows and spreading
lime trees. It moves out to the frozen river, the forest and the mountains,
where the only habitation is a deserted charcoal burner’s hut. He crosses the
highway where the mail coach travels, its post-horn echoing in the valleys. He
passes through a village at night and seeks rest in a graveyard. Everywhere he
turns the snowbound landscape is hopeless – gaunt trees, frozen streams and not
a human in sight, until he meets the old man. There is something about the
tread of the opening song and the strength of the opening lines that makes you
realise this wanderer is made of sterner stuff than the young miller of Die Schöne Müllerin. There is of course
a strong element of self-pity in his bitter reflections, but the extent of his
anger shows that he is a fighter. And how he rages, against the girl’s family,
against the town, against life itself, until he finds he has no choice but to
keep going.

The music is unbearably moving, so much so
that it requires a conscious effort of will to sit down and listen. We have all
travelled through that desolate landscape and it reaches us at our most
vulnerable spots. But amazingly in this work, where hopelessness is the only
theme, hope triumphs. A work that seems to be about the powerlessness of the
individual is actually about the power of music.

The evening of 17 November 1828 Schubert
was violently and continuously delirious. His friend Spaun, who visited him
during these last days, tells us that when he fell into delirium he sang
ceaselessly, and when he was lucid he corrected the proofs of the second part
of Winterreise. Two days later, by
three o’clock in the afternoon, Schubert was dead.