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Schubert’s Winter Journey:
Anatomy of an Obsession

by ian bostridge
knopf, 528 pages, $29

One hundred and fifty years ago, lieder—art songs, in English—held a place in society that no music holds today. These were songs for a soloist with piano accompaniment, something for two people of reasonable skill to entertain their friends with after dinner. The greatest composer of lieder was Franz Schubert, who wrote over six hundred before his death at thirty-one. This corpus includes two song cycles, Winterreise (Winter Journey) and Die schöne Müllerin (The Beautiful Girl of the Mill), both settings of works by the poet Wilhelm Müller. Die schöne Müllerin is more typical of lieder. Its pleasant songs conjure a spring day, and even its tragic ending is subdued.

Winterreise is different. Joseph von Spaun, one of Schubert’s friends, recounted the circumstances of its composition: “For some time Schubert appeared very upset and melancholy. When I asked him what was troubling him, he would only say, ‘Soon you will hear and understand.’” One day Schubert invited von Spaun to another friend’s house, promising, “I will sing you a cycle of horrifying songs. I am anxious to know what you will say about them. They have cost me more effort than any of my other songs.” Schubert sang through the entire Winterreise, which takes over an hour. His friends were “utterly dumbfounded by the mournful, gloomy tone,” and his host said that he liked only one of the pieces. Schubert replied, “I like these songs more than all the rest, and you will come to like them as well.” By this time Schubert had long been ill with the syphilis that would take his life within a year. Von Spaun blamed Schubert’s demise partly on “the state of excitement in which he wrote his most beautiful songs, and especially his Winterreise.” Schubert was correcting the proofs of Winterreise in bed a few days before his last breath.


n Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, Ian Bostridge—an English tenor who has made audio and film recordings, as well as countless live performances, of Winterreise—argues that the work transcends its genre: “Winter Journey is incontestably a great work of art which should be as much a part of our common experience as the poetry of Shakespeare and Dante, the paintings of Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso, the novels of the Brontë sisters or Marcel Proust.” Perhaps the first two on that list are in a class by themselves, but otherwise Bostridge is correct. Winterreise is a masterpiece of simplicity, comprising twenty-four songs, most lasting under three minutes. The music’s beauty lies in its plain, precise depiction of a man walking alone on a cold winter’s night.

More precisely, it lies in the preservation and communication of an archetype particular to nineteenth-century Europe. “I came a stranger, / I depart a stranger,” the cycle begins. Müller was immersed in Lord Byron, whose life and poetry celebrated the wanderer, a tragic figure always in exile and never at home in society. Winterreise’s wanderer remains unnamed and mysterious. We do not know why his romance failed, but it did, and in the first song he has left the home of his beloved for the cold, loveless night. Müller’s words could be almost a caricature of Romantic poetry, but, as Bostridge puts it, Schubert’s “transcendental” music “transmogrifies what could so easily be mistaken for a self-indulgent parade of disappointed love lyrics.” Together, he writes, the music and lyrics allow us to step into the mood and subjectivity of Romanticism.

The movement was in part a reaction against the rationalist norms of the Enlightenment. As such, Romanticism emphasized in art not classicism or convention, but the powerful expression of powerful feelings. The painter Caspar David Friedrich—whose Wanderer above the Sea of Fog could serve as a portrait of Winterreise’s narrator—put it succinctly: “the artist’s feeling is his law.” Romantic art must therefore be deeply felt in order to be fully experienced. Winterreise’s magic comes from its ability to conjure its protagonist’s mood so effectively, with such minimal music.


f course, the only way to experience the cycle’s mood is to listen to it. Winterreise is written for tenor but is frequently transposed for baritones and basses. Different voices give the work different colorings. Bostridge himself has a clear and polite English voice. When he sings, the wanderer is a gentle, sensitive poet, his angst that of the young and unlucky in love. By contrast, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau—who made recordings of all of Schubert’s lieder, including seven of Winterreise—has a baritone of pure gold. His wanderer seems mature: It is difficult to imagine him as young and brooding. Then there is Jonas Kaufmann, the world’s reigning operatic tenor, who is known for the dark timbre of his voice, which thins when quiet but becomes terrifying and Wagnerian in louder passages. With skillful phrasing, coloring, diction, and breath control, he paints a vivid picture of the cold, lonely walk. His wanderer is still vulnerable, but older and more dangerous than Bostridge’s, reminiscent of Nietzsche and raging against the dark world.

While Nietzsche himself would come later in the century, the Romantics were already feeling the loss of a metaphysical underpinning that grounded man in the cosmos and guaranteed human community. John Donne’s “no man is an Island” comes from a world with a firm spiritual foundation, Bostridge explains. As that foundation was lost, Schubert and Müller’s generation felt fragmented and alone. They were also reacting to the politics of the day, which, after numerous conflicts, sought to protect society by promoting religion and strict mores. But social religion does not put down deep roots. It can keep the peace, but not give it.

Hence the Romantics’ focus on the wanderer, a man of breeding who is disconnected from his fellow men. Schubert himself had a deep Marian piety, but while he composed many religious works, his religious beliefs remain unclear. Religious motifs appear in Winterreise’s music, but the closest we get to any real theology is at the end of the cycle in “Mut” (“Courage”), where the narrator lustily proclaims, “Cheerfully out into the world / Against the wind and the weather! / If there’s no God on earth, / We’re gods ourselves!” Subtle edits to the song’s title—Müller’s original had an exclamation point—and its place in the cycle make Bostridge think that Schubert is tempering the song’s “brute heterodoxy” while “experimenting with a world in which not only love, but God and meaning, are lost.” That world is “cold and empty.” Bostridge rightly sees flashes of Becket-­like absurdity in Winterreise, with neither Becket’s full-blown whimsical nihilism nor the emptiness scabbed over by irony that characterizes our own time. The Romantics were not quite at the abyss that later writers felt, but they could see it coming.


interreise ends with “Der Leiermann” (“The Hurdy-Gurdy Man”). The wanderer has come upon an old man grinding a hurdy-gurdy, the symbol of skill-less street music. This crudeness is reflected in the piano, which plays a drone followed by a small, repetitive melody. But, Bostridge writes, the song is “one of those magical, totemic pieces of music which seem to have a power and a resonance beyond all rational explanation.” That eerie repetition gets under your skin and serves as the foundation for the wanderer’s consideration of this old man: “Barefoot on the ice / He sways back and forth, / And his little plate / Remains always empty.” No one wants to hear him, but he plays on. The wanderer asks himself, Should he go with this strange old man? Will he accompany the wanderer’s songs with his hurdy-gurdy? Perhaps, as Bostridge suggests, this vision of real poverty raises “at least a small question mark over the self-indulgence of endlessly perpetuated, inner-directed pain.”

As the final piano chords die away, the wanderer fades from view, contemplating the old man and his hurdy-gurdy. In the end, Winterreise makes no argument; it leaves the listener alone on a cold road.

Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Boston College.

Image by Nona Lohr on licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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