Composer: Franz Schubert (b. 1797 - d. 1828)
Performance date: 05/07/2012
Venue: St. Brendan’s Church
Composition Year: 1827
Recording Engineer: Anton Timoney, RTÉ lyric fm
Instrumentation: T-solo, pf
Simon Lepper -
Robin Tritschler - [tenor]
I should have kept a diary. That
afternoon in the early 1970s, Samuel Beckett, a friend of my mother the writer
Edna O’Brien, left the rehearsal of his play (I don’t remember which one) at
the Royal Court, Sloane Square and came to our house to play our piano. It was a Yamaha and it lived in the front
room with the stereo and the records. I,
then a teenager, was in there mooching about.
Our visitor asked what music I liked.
I played him a track from Tommy
(probably Pin Ball Wizard): he said Pete Townsend’s music was Wagnerian: then
he sang me a song accompanying himself on our piano. The song was in German,
and its tone was strange, melancholy yet fiery.
When he finished Beckett
explained that the song was from something called Winterreise. Did he mention
who wrote the words or the music? I’ve
no recollection. But I do know I’d a distinct moment of prescience. I knew that what I’d just heard would
re-enter my life at a later date and I was right. I have met it many times
since and the encounters have been wholly to my benefit.
Winterreise is a song cycle. The writer of the words was Wilhelm Müller
[1794–1827] a poet who did much soldiering and travelling and then died
young. The poems began to appear in 1823
and finally appeared as the sequence of twenty-four lyrics that we have today
in Posthumous Poems by a Wandering Horn
Player (1825), which Müller dedicated to Carl Maria von
Weber. Schubert encountered the text in
the small library put together for him by Franz von Schober and, as Schober
puts it, was attracted by the . . . poems
[and] . . . set them to music very effectively in his inimitable manner.
Winterreise tells a young man’s
story of thwarted love and agonized flight.
It starts in spring, in May: there is a beautiful girl who talks of
love, and there is a mother who talks of marriage: then – catastrophe: the
narrator doesn’t explain what this is: it is simply a fact which he bleakly
notes: and then, like a latter day Adam, expelled from Eden only without his
Eve, he flees his love object and the familiar world of men and stumbles out
and into and across a wintry world that mirrors his frozen heart, a world of
snow, bare trees, crows and atomizing desolation. He is in terrible pain and he
can see nothing else but his pain (as so often happens with the heartbroken):
however, (which is what makes Müller’s poems so special) he’s self-conscious
too: even as he suffers part of his personality is monitoring his feelings and
mining grim insights from his experiences.
The insights are many but for me
the most revealing comes in the fourth song Erstarrung
(Numbness): his agony is awful says the narrator but it also keeps ‘her’ alive,
albeit the image of ‘her’ is cold and frozen.
Were his heart to warm and his grief to vanish he’d lose her image
forever. Better to suffer and have her
(at least in memory), he concludes, than be happy and lose her.
The cycle is in the voice of a
young man but it could equally be a young woman’s. The experience is universal. The poems look simple but in fact they’re profound
and artful: they also tell a story even though at first glance they appear to
be a series of complaints. And they are
emotionally exact. Despair is popularly
characterized as an empty feeling but as Müller records and psychoanalysis has
subsequently confirmed, it isn’t: the depressed are engorged by their
despair. That’s why they talk about it
endlessly as the narrator does here: they’ve nothing else: it’s everything.
But material impregnated with
truth of this kind is not necessarily going to work when re-imagined as song: a
doleful poem on the page you can simply stop reading but when it comes to you
at a recital, unless you get up and walk away, you have to hear it out. But with Winterreise
as re-configured by Schubert that is never an option, it never crosses your
mind. On the contrary, from the
insistent opening to the last dying note, you’re compelled to listen: you can’t
Why is that? How is Schubert able to achieve this? What is it about what he does that makes you
want to stay the course? Variety is one
reason. Müller’s experience is narrow,
and his language simple and pared back: but the music that carries his words
into your ear, is so rich and dynamic you never have the feeling, which you do
as a reader that what you are hearing is a repeat or a bit similar to something
you have already encountered. On the
contrary, as you listen you cannot fail to notice (and be impressed by) the way
that each song is musically totally fresh and unique while also being
emotionally pitch perfect.
So much variation in such a
narrow compass is exhilarating and the ingenuity of the composer is a marvellous
thing. Schubert demands attention
because every time a song finishes you have to hear how he does the next
one. But what makes Winterreise so effective and affecting and, in Schober’s words, so
“inimitable”, is the work the music does in addition to its musical work, by
which I mean the emotional work that it does.
Müller’s lyrics are like icebergs: they float about the cold sea and
from the words showing above the surface the reader infers the greater bulk of
misery that lies below. But what happens
when you get the lyrics combined with Schubert’s music is that the submerged
bulk becomes incarnate and the pain you previously only apprehended you now
comprehend, and experience in the marrow of your being. Reading Müller is a
two-dimensional experience, but hearing Winterreise
as re-configured by Schubert is a three-dimensional one, overwhelming,
devastating, and, ultimately, humanizing.
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