Program Notes and Translations

Schubert playing at one of his famous "Schubertiades" where he would premiere many of his new songs. Julius Schmidt 1897

Schubert playing at one of his famous "Schubertiades" where he would premiere many of his new songs. Julius Schmidt 1897

"Come to Schober's today and I will play you a cycle of terrifying songs; they have affected me more than has ever been the case with any other songs." These are Franz Schubert’s own words, inviting his close friends to the first performance of what is no doubt his greatest work, Winterreise (Winter’s Journey). This cycle, told from the perspective of a young wanderer, begins as he is leaving the house of his newly estranged lover. However, instead of moving through a series of events to an impending death, the poetry takes us very slowly through the wanderer’s journey from the village, to the distant outskirts of the town. This physical journey directly mirrors the wanderer’s loss of his own mental stability. The further the wanderer travels away from the village, the more evident becomes the wanderer’s inability to recognize reality.

A portrait of the poet, Wilhelm Müller

A portrait of the poet, Wilhelm Müller

It is almost unfathomable to think that a work with this much textual depth, musical foresight, and, as we now know, autobiographical undertones could have been written just a mere twelve years after the composition of the first Liederkreis (German song cycle) An die ferne Geliebte by Ludwig van Beethoven. Despite the short time between the compositions of these two pieces, Winterreise signifies a radical change in compositional style. An die ferne Geliebte (to the distant beloved) is a six song cycle which uses highly traditional form and harmony, recognizable textual themes and sweeping motivic melodies which ultimately come to a hopeful and happy ending for the poetic voice. In contrast, Winterreise, a twenty-four song cycle lasting just over an hour, uses unprecedented harmonic language, highly esoteric poetry and finishes in a state of total ambiguity, leaving the listener with a haunting sense of existential turmoil. This is not to say that Beethoven was not a forward thinking composer, in fact it’s forward thinking that makes Beethoven such an important musical figure. Beethoven single handedly revolutionized the symphonic form, piano sonata and reached far into the twentieth century with his highly esoteric late string quartets. However, for such a revolutionary composer, his songs, such as those found in An die ferne Geliebte a piece written nine years after the opening two bars of the Eroica symphony shocked the world, seem to uncharacteristically follow the prescribed Viennese expectation of composition. That’s because to the Viennese, Lieder (songs) fell under the umbrella of “Hausmusik” or parlor music. Music meant to be aesthetically pleasing, not soul searching, and so when Beethoven writes Lieder, however beautiful it may be, it is not conceived with the same amount of philosophical considerations such as his symphonies or late quartets. Through this lense, similarly to Beethoven’s Eroica and the symphony, Winterreise is the historic turning point that takes Lieder from pleasant music to be played at home, to a much higher spiritual and philosophical level. Upon the first performance of Winterreise one of Schubert’s closest friends Franz von Schober, commented that despite Schubert’s unprecedented enthusiasm for the piece, he had only liked one out of the twenty-four songs. Schubert replied, "These songs please me more than all the rest, and in time they will please you as well…" explicitly stating that he knew this piece to be well ahead of his time.

There are few words that can adequately describe the essence of this Liederkreis. Schubert himself uses the word terrifying, which is pertinent at a surface, but the best word I have found that ties all of the component parts together is dualism. Throughout the entire cycle Schubert and poet Wilhelm Müller, are constantly juxtaposing opposites against each other. In the larger structure of the piece there is the juxtaposition that although this is a winter’s journey, there is no destination, that although the wanderer is simultaneously searching for identity and social acceptance he avoids the main roads to the village and that he longs for peace and yet, he thrives in the middle of winter storms. This cycle is about many things, but none more than the wanderer’s increasing inability to identify component parts of dualistic conundrums. Instead of learning to accept the inherent hypocrisies of reality, he reorients himself to believe that these hypocrisies denote falsehood and through this, confuses the two leaving him in a mindset that cripples his ability to identify reality.  This inability is what essentially drives him to his ultimate state of disassociation in the final song, the inability to identify himself.