One year before his death in 1828 at the age of 31, Franz Schubert composed the song cycle Winterreise, 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller set to music for voice and piano. Ian Bostridge, a tenor who has performed Winterreise many times, shares his obsession and fascination with this seminal work of the Lied genre in this book.
In every one of the 24 chapters one song is discussed in depth, and the wide variety of topics touched on by the author is simply astounding. Much of the information is of course on the Biedermeier period, which was a cultural epoch in Central Europe between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the Revolutions of 1848, and during which Winterreise was composed. This era was not only characterized by conservatism and a focus on home life, but the Austrian Empire was ruled by Chancellor Metternich like a police state. Bostridge, however, does not only discuss the political climate in Schubert’s hometown of Vienna at the time, which he calls “frozen” and a “political wintertime” due to the high degree of repression, and the cultural atmosphere, but also turns his gaze on the other facts of life, some of them more mundane than others, but all relevant to the understanding of the songs, like the transportation of mail, the economic and societal effects of replacing charcoal with coke, religious beliefs, the cultural significance of the horn in German Romantic culture, the many shapes of snowflakes, the history and use of the hurdy-gurdy, or the formation of sun dogs and will o’ the wisps. He tells us about Schubert, that genius who allegedly said of himself that he was “a man reaching for the stars”, but who contracted syphilis which sadly undermined his ambition and ended his life much too early. But does it even matter, aside from the human tragedy, when the impact of his works over the centuries is so significant, and his influence so far-reaching? He might as well have laid hold of them during his lifetime.
Between all these explanations and digressions Bostridge also finds time to recount some enjoyable anecdotes about his own experiences as a performer of the song cycle, and, here and there, provides a short musicological discussion on a significant part of one of the songs, which may be a little technical for non-musicians, but can easily be skipped. The many connections he draws into seemingly all available directions are impressive, and it is most surprising that he almost never loses sight of his main objective, which is obviously to offer a deeper understanding of Winterreise. Only very rarely does his enthusiasm for seemingly any kind of subject lead him too far from this goal. Mostly, he returns in a timely manner to the story of Winterreise‘s main character, a lonely wanderer grieving for a lost love, who is on his way towards an uncertain destiny. It is a gloomy and haunting masterpiece, and the proofs for its publication were fittingly corrected by Schubert on his deathbed.
This is a wonderful and awe-inspiring book, one that is educational and entertaining in equal measure. It may as well change the way we listen to Winterreise as it says on the book jacket; not because Bostridge imposes his own view of the song cycle on us, but because he gives us tools to draw our own conclusions and paint our own mental picture. And then, when we next listen to the songs, we can accompany the lonely wanderer on his fateful journey with this knowledgeable guide whispering in our ear.
CBR12 Bingo: Music