My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Beginning with a farewell: Winterreise's "Gute Nacht (Good Night)"

Saying "goodbye" is often not only a moment of parting, but also a moment of beginning.  Such is the case with the first song in Schubert's song-cycle, Winterreise.  In the whole of this mammoth work, we hear of a journey that a travelling horn player takes following a failed romance.  (Wilhelm Müller, the poet who wrote the poems used in Winterreise, published this set with the title, Poems from the posthumous papers of a travelling horn-player.)  In "Gute Nacht (Good Night)," our horn-player chooses to pick up his things in the middle of the night and travel yet again to another town, saying farewell to the maiden that has rejected him.

So this is where I begin my journey as well.

I think I should be honest and admit that this first song is not my favorite of the cycle so it's been difficult for me to discipline myself to really sit down and spend quality time with it.  Because it is one of the longer songs and is virtually the same for each verse (music folks often call this strophic), I know that I need to find ways to vary each verse in some way in order to make it interesting and in order for the performance to reflect the text.  As I have been living with it for the past few days, I have been getting more of a glimpse into what Schubert might have been doing as he was crafting it and the song is starting to grow on me.  Here are some of my thoughts...

The first question that I have about this song has to do with tempo. The accompaniment part is an unbroken chain of eighth notes.  Although there are a few other filler notes, it is the persistent eighth-note pulse that prevails.  But what should the tempo be?  Originally I thought it should be on the slower side, especially considering what the song-cycle is about.  I pictured a young man plodding through the snow, hesitant to leave the town where he had met his love.  Perhaps a tempo such as this:

It certainly would get the picture across that this cycle is one depressing piece after another.
But I don't know if that really feels right to me.  The main character, after all, is a travelling horn-player.  My thought is that this man is actually used to moving from town to town.  Perhaps this is just another inevitable move for him and the journey isn't such a dreaded affair.  So maybe I should try a little faster tempo...a tempo that would fit someone who is used to travelling long distances.

I think I like that better. Now it's not quite as plodding and considering the length and repetition in this particular song, I think this tempo will keep our character moving along while still allowing for some sorrow to linger.

We get almost three verses with the same piano and voice parts. In the first verse the character gives us a bit of his history - he came to the town a stranger, met his lover who returned his love and gave him hope of being wed. Not saying why, he says that he must leave now and begin another journey. The second verse seems to emphasize his loneliness in the beginning of this journey and the third shows a little more of the character's attempts at pushing aside his emotions, showing his resolution instead to move on. There are just a few tiny differences between the verses which I'll have to play around with. I don't want to just ignore them.

In the interlude after this third verse, things get a bit more interesting. First, here's what the interlude sounds like for the first two verses:

And here's what Schubert does after the third verse:

Aha! He changes from minor to major and keeps most of the fourth verse in this more optimistic key. But why does he do this? What is our horn-player going to say next? In this last verse he addresses his beloved, saying that since it is nighttime he will leave without waking her, but will write "Good night" on her gate so that she knows that he was thinking of her. So why this change in key from minor to major? For now, I think that this choice hints at the possibility that the main character is not outraged at the events, at least not yet. He still loves his beloved enough to leave without any drama. Here is the fourth verse piano part:

So how does Schubert end this song? First listen to this version of the postlude that stays in the major key of the fourth verse:

And here is the same postlude, with a return to the minor key that most of this song is in:

Franz Schubert chose the latter option, tying up the piece in a traditional way by ending the song as it began. For me this is also a hint of what is to come - that forgetting his beloved is easier said than done. We'll have to wait and see how it all turns out in the end and I must warn you that I may change my mind at least a few times about all of this as I continue this journey.  

You may too.

Here is a video of the baritone, Thomas Quasthoff, performing this first song with pianist and conductor, Daniel Barenboim. Stunning, truly a stunning performance.  To see a translation for all of the songs in Winterreise, please click here to go to Barry Mitchell's site, Theory of Music. (Thank you, Barry!)

Other posts in this Winterreise series:
The beginning of my own "Winterreise"
When music is more than music: "Die Wetterwahne (The Weathervane)"
Back on the road again: "Gefrorne Tränen (Frozen Tears)"
Psychology through music: "Erstarrung (Numbness)"
Finding a place of comfort: "Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree)"
Images of snow and ice, images of a frozen heart: "Wasserflut (Floodwater)" and "Auf dem Flusse (On the River)"
"Sturm und Drang" encapsulated in song:  Winterreise's "Rückblick (Backward Glance)"
No rest for the weary: "Irrlicht (Will-o'-the-wisp)" and "Rast (Rest)"
Experiencing a lucid dream through music: Winterreise's "Frühlingstraum (Dream of Spring)"
On the edge of a dream: "Einsamkeit (Loneliness)"
Lifted above despair: Winterreise's "Die Post (The Post)"
Choosing a different path: "Der greise Kopf (The Grey Head)" and "Die Krähe (The Crow)"


  1. I enjoyed your blog and your clips very much.

    As for why the guy is leaving, most analysts forget the social background and the type of society the protagonist lived in. These institutions are important to bear in mind
    Also with respect to the narrative in the Schöne Müllerin.
    In casu: his employment with his master in the town is over. Quote:
    'Ich kann zu meiner Reisen
    Nicht wählen mit der Zeit,
    Muß selbst den Weg mir weisen
    In dieser Dunkelheit.'
    He probably knows he has a long way to wander to the home of the next possible master, so he has to leave early in the morning. Why he leaves we don't know, but the reason is clear:
    'Was soll ich länger weilen,
    Daß man mich trieb hinaus?
    Laß irre Hunde heulen
    Vor ihres Herren Haus;'
    ie. the alternative to him leaving, namely 'following his heart' and staying for the sake of the girl is that he will be kicked out of his lodgings (which is with his master); also, he would not get a favorable remark in his Wanderbuch, and the whole thing would initiate a perhaps unrecoverable social deroute.
    Cf. also the plot of Wagner's Meistersinger.

  2. tgpederson,
    Wow, thank you for that historical and cultural perspective. I had heard of the term "journeyman" but definitely didn't know many details and I had never thought of the protagonist of Winterreise as being one. It gives me something new to think about.

    Many thanks,