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.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

"Sturm und Drang" encapsulated in song: Winterreise's "Rückblick (Backward Glance)"

My apologies right off the bat for using a German term in the title of this post.  I imagine many folks will just skip this one because of it but so be it.

There is a very good entry in Wikipedia about the "Sturm und Drang" movement but to sum it up, I'll define it as a movement in German history, most often relating to literature and music, that began and ended in the late 18th century, before Franz Schubert was even alive. The translation for the German is "storm and stress" but I think of it as the tension that arises when one is pulled emotionally first in one direction and then in another. "Sturm und Drang" is all about drama, psychology, and emotion.

"Rückblick (Backward Glance)," the eighth song in Schubert's Winterreise, is full of drama, psychology, and emotion. You can hear this immediately when the piano plays the introduction.

Our main character is no longer trudging along in the snow. It sounds to me like he's feeling more like a caged animal than a wandering musician. These rhythmic and dynamic surges continue on through the first two verses as he describes the harshness he has experienced as he has fled from his beloved's town. He talks of the burning soles of his feet, of not wanting to breathe again, of tripping on stones from being in a hurry, and of crows that throw hail and snowballs at him. This is clearly a man who is in enduring physical pain and torment.

But there's a catch.

Our friend also can't help but think back tenderly to the town that he is fleeing. After the second verse Schubert quickly flips a switch and we are suddenly stopped in our tracks by the shift to F major. While the voice sings of shining windows, larks and nightingales, blooming linden trees, and cool water we have virtually the same material both melodically and rhythmically that we had in the previous verses  but Schubert, a master of subtlety, puts us directly in the hopes of our protagonist and we can't help but feel the psychological change that has taken place.

As with most people who have been rejected, our friend can't stay cheery for long. His thoughts meander back to "the beautiful maiden's eyes" and with the descent into the last verse, Schubert leads us back into F minor yet again. I find it interesting that Schubert spreads out the final verse of text over music that served the first two verses of the song. Our musician's final thoughts are now becoming obsessive, going back and forth between despair and triumph.

Back and forth, agony and defiance. Where in the cycle is the song going to end? Taken a listen for yourself to see what Schubert chose to do. Here is the voice part for the final verse...

At the very end, I hear those triplet notes in the voice part as being somewhat of a trumpet call. My translation:  our french horn player is back on his feet again, not pinned down by his negative emotions.

I mentioned earlier in the post that I think Schubert is a master of subtlety. Here are a few more examples of small things he does in the music that might go unnoticed to some, but makes the experience all the more amazing to me.

At the beginning of the first and fifth verses, Schubert uses virtually the same music but with some minor differences that reflect the differences in text. For example, here's the voice part at the beginning of the first verse, the text being, "The soles of my feet are burning, even though I go through ice and snow. I do not wish to draw another breath until I can no longer see the towers."

And for the text at the beginning of the fifth verse, "When that day comes to mind, I wish to look back once more. I wish to stumble back, to stand before her house," we hear:

There's just a slight difference between the two. In the second one, the voice part literally stumbles backwards before it completes its ascent up the scale. Amazing.

Another part I love is at the beginning of the second verse, when it talks of the crows that threw hail and snowballs at our friend's hat. I can hear all of this in the music:

And the last thing I want to mention is how Schubert chooses to move from F minor to F major and back again in between the verses. In the first part of each example below, I have played the conclusion of the verse without changing keys until the voice enters and in the second part I have played what Schubert actually wrote. Here's the transition in between the second and third verses first:

And here's the transition in between the fourth and fifth verses...

I definitely prefer what Schubert chose to do!  I guess that's why I am the pianist.  

Well if you made it through this entire post, you win a prize! I realize that to some folks it might seem crazy to pay this much attention to detail but this type of investigating of the score is what helps me to really connect with the music. And in the case of this incredible song cycle, it is helping me to understand why listening to it or performing it can be so powerful and why it can leave such an imprint on someone's heart and soul.

Oh, and before I sign off, here's a complete recording of "Rückblick," sung by tenor Ian Bostridge with Julius Drake at the piano.

Click here to see a translation of this song.

Other posts in this Winterreise series:
Images of snow and ice, images of a frozen heart: "Wasserflut (Floodwater)" & "Auf dem Flusse (On the River)"
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 love your insights and perspective, and enjoyed the clips of your playing! The score really does have all (certainly most!) of the answers if we choose to make use of them. :) I hope to have the pleasure of playing and performing this cycle one day!

    1. Thank you, Carson.
      I hope you get a chance to perform this someday as well. It took me many years of waiting to finally have the opportunity and now that I have a second chance I'm truly on cloud 9! Such a special piece of music.

      All the best,