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, September 4, 2010

No rest for the weary: "Irrlicht (Will-o'-the-wisp)" and "Rast (Rest)"

When I hear the next two songs in Winterreise, "Irrlicht (Will-o'-the-wisp)" and "Rast (Rest)," my body can't help but resonate with the exhaustion and weariness that our travelling musician is experiencing. I find it remarkable that a composer can write music in such a way that an emotion actually becomes visceral to all that are experiencing it, whether onstage, in the audience, in a practice room, or wherever else. But I suppose this quality might be one of the pieces to the puzzle I am trying to put together - the puzzle of how a piece of music can have such a profound effect on a person.

So how does Schubert help us to step in this traveler's shoes?

Something that is consistent through both of these songs is the presence of accented, or emphasized notes. We've heard them before on our journey; in fact, these notes that stick out like a sore thumb appear in every single song we've heard up until now. In "Irrlicht," they alternate between being on the first beat of the measure and being on the second or third beats. For me there is a different reaction to each type. When the accent falls on the first beat, it can take on the quality of a sigh. When it appears on the second or third eighth notes of the measure, it feels more like a stumble to me - it is almost as if our traveler is so weary and exhausted, he is having trouble walking. I hear this weariness right from the start with this extraordinarily simple introduction. Here is the introduction, followed by the postlude, which is almost the same, but with a dotted rhythm at the beginning of the sigh motives:

And here are two passages full of accented notes from "Rast (Rest)" At the beginning of the first clip, I play the introduction as it is written first, with the accents. And then in that same clip, I replay the introduction but without the accents, just to see what it would have sounded like had he not been so sensitive. It sounds quite different to my ear.

Here is the piano part in the second verse of "Rast," where I hear the accents as sighs again:

So how does the "Will-o'-the wisp" fit in to the mood of the first song? Personally, I hear this mysterious, glowing figure mostly in the voice part, first as it seems to snake around the key of a minor and then also when the voice is required to sing the vocal version of acrobatics which become extremely impressive at the very end. Listen to this and imagine singing it yourself. Or if you're brave, go ahead and sing it yourself. I promise I won't listen.

The song, "Rast," also has some of its own fireworks, again, in the voice part. This time, the motivation behind this challenging vocal line seems to be the text, in the first verse as our traveler talks of the storm which has helped blow him forward in his journey, and in the last verse, as he talks of wild and daring tempests, and compares them in the last verse with serpents that deliver fierce stings.

Another small detail that I find interesting is how Schubert chooses to alter the voice part at the beginning of the second verse. In the first verse, the composer literally paints a picture with the vocal line. It goes down by fourths and then walks back up to where it started from - it's like walking into a valley and back out, only in musical notation. This same line, in the second verse, is altered to reflect the text:

I am used to straying,
every path leads to one goal.

I hear two different paths in the two ascending scales found in the voice part, but where do they end up? At the same path, of course, or in the case of this song, at the same musical material.

There is such significance in the small things when it comes to Schubert.

In "Rast," I simply love what it sounds like when the piano plays the first note of the introduction. The previous song was in a minor but when he starts the next one, Schubert cranks the music up buy a half-step. Hearing the dissonance between the two pieces, combined with its plodding pace gives me chills, it grates, it makes me wince. In other words, I love it! I love it because it forces me, as a listener especially, to react.

To close this post, I want to point out another subtle difference Schubert uses to reflect the text the singer is singing. In the clip below, I play the music that accompanies the text that talks of how our traveler's walking has kept him cheerful throughout his journey. I follow that by playing music that is virtually the same in the third verse but with a subtle twist. The text here describes his weary limbs and burning wounds.  

One thing I love about song-cycles is listening for similarities between all of the songs, listening for threads that run throughout and create one over-arching dramatic moment. Those threads are part of what keep me listening and wanting to hear more.

OK Schubert, I'm still here...I'm in the moment with your weary traveler. What comes next? I'm dying to know!

How about you?

Here are videos of these songs with Hans Hotter singing and Gerald Moore at the piano:

"Irrlicht (Will-o'-the-wisp)"

and "Rast (Rest)"

And 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:
"Sturm und Drang" encapsulated in song: Winterreise's "Rückblick (Backward Glance)"
Experiencing a lucid dream through music: Winterreise's "Frühlingstraum (Dream of Spring)"
On the edge of a dream: "Einsmkeit (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)"

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