During his short life Schubert wrote over 600 art songs and that output consists of the three main cycles – Dir Schöne Müllerin op.25 (The Beautiful Miller’s Daughter), Winterreise and Schwanengesang D.957, (Swan Song) and countless other songs where the text (poems) are placed into a musical context, written for voice and the equal partnership of a piano, with the piano writing suggesting strong visual imagery tied to the inherent meaning of the poem. Winterreise, is a set of 24 songs composed almost entirely using minor keys.
Completed in 1827, towards the end of Schubert’s life, again using poems by Wilhelm Müller, Winterreise reflects some of the personal trauma that Schubert himself was experiencing at the time. After years of a rather debauched life Schubert had contracted syphilis, the disease, or perhaps the treatment for the disease, which was ultimately responsible for his death in 1828 at the age of 31. He described Winterreise as being ‘truly terrible, songs which have affected me more than any others.’ The cycle takes the audience on a journey that, by the very nature of the opening song, is clear that it will end fatefully. Even the title, Winter’s Journey, conjures up a visual image of a cold and dark landscape.
The first song, Gute Nacht (Good Night) begins enigmatically. Why is the traveller embarking on this journey? The text explains “she spoke of love, the mother of marriage” and yet the protagonist is venturing out into the snow, accompanied by the trudging and relentless quaver movement in the piano. Surely this is about unrequited love? He finishes by singing that he wrote ‘good night’ on the gate of his lover showing that despite the fact he is the one who is leaving, his thoughts were still of her.
By the third song Gefrorne Tränen (Frozen Tears) where the tears which pour down his face are frozen we realise the depth of his despair, amplified in the fourth song, Erstarrung (Numbness) when he talks of his “heart as if frozen” and it appears that his love is not merely missing but truly dead and gone. These first four songs are all in a minor key, albeit the first does have a moment where hope can be felt in those few bars in a major key. The fifth song, Der Lindenbaum, speaks of the sense of security and comfort experienced when reclining and dreaming under the branches of the Linden tree, a feeling which still comes to him when he has departed that safe haven. The journey continues with many references to snow, ice, loneliness and tears.
Although none of the songs offer any positive outcomes for our traveller, Frühlingstraum (Dreaming of Spring) and Die Post (The Post) are in major keys. In Frühlingstraum he dreams of springs gone by, of colourful flowers and green meadows. From this dream he is awakened by the cock crowing and realises that around him is not the spring of his dreams but the cold, misty darkness of his present place. Die Post tells of his desire to receive a letter from his beloved when he hears the jolly horn of the post man. Alas, his hopes are again shattered – as there is no letter for him.
The final song, Der Leiermann (The Hurdy Gurdy man), describes not only his final despair but the absolute and unequivocal deterioration of his mental state. The piano plays the most forlorn repetitive melody and under the sung text is only a bare fifth chord. The desolation and despair are complete. The songs require the performers to immerse themselves totally in the atmosphere of cold, dark, forlorn despair. They need to create that atmosphere by the tonal colour of the voice and of the possibilities of the instrument. Rarely does an audience leave a performance of this work unmoved, but the occasion of experiencing this masterpiece is one which will be remembered.
Dr. Jeanell Carrigan is an Associate Professor at University of Sydney. She will be performing Winterreise with Australian baritone, Barry Ryan for the Sydney Schubert Society on 20th August at the Independent Theatre, North Sydney.