"Die Nebensonnen (The Mock Suns)" may be the penultimate song in Winterreise, but after living with and sometimes in this cycle, I've come to see this particular song as our protagonist's final breath of life. I find such incredible peace here, that I'm not sure whether or not I want to weep. Our friend is clearly ready for this passing, wishing for the third sun to set, knowing that he will "feel happier in the dark."
The text of this poem has received quite a lot of attention, especially because of the title and subject, the three "mock suns." Analysis has run the gamut, from the suns being two of the character's beloved's eyes plus God, to the more scientific analysis, that our character was witnessing a phenomenon known as "sun dogs." Of course they all have their merit but they don't resonate with the scenario I hold in my heart while I'm experiencing this cycle. First, let me give you my rough translation of the poem:
Three suns saw I in the sky,
Long and intently did I gaze at them.
And they stood there so stollid,
as if unwilling to leave from me.
Alas, you are not my suns,
gaze into the others' faces!
Ah, not long ago I had three:
now have they set, the best two.
If only the third would follow,
I would feel happier in the dark.
So what are these three suns our friend is referring to? Is he being literal or are they more symbolic? Personally, I don't feel that he is looking at a scientific phenomenon; stepping into the shoes of someone who is departing from this life, I don't know that such a sight would distract me from my final thoughts. For me, these suns are the three things he sought in life: love of another, love of God, and love of self. In the first part of Winterreise, we watched our friend bid farewell to that first sun, the love of his beloved. In the second part we have watched him struggle with larger issues, getting to the point where he finally decided that perhaps there isn't even a God, at least not here on earth. So now one sun is left, his own. This is the sun that is the last to set. Now I would like to clarify that although I mentioned this third sun as representing the love of self, I don't get a sense at the end that our protagonist has lost a love for himself or that he dies disheartened by his own life. Quite the opposite, in fact. I feel that through this winter's journey, he has gained almost a spiritual view of his own life. Schubert's peaceful, undisturbed setting of the text gives me the sense that in his death, his life quietly melts back into the world around him.
No more pain, no more questioning, no more angst, no more searching, no more wandering.
Finally, he is at rest.
As am I.
Before I move on to the final song, I want to share an observation I made the other night while the words and music of Winterreise were haunting me at bedtime. I realized that part of the reason this cycle is so moving to me is because Schubert and Müller have created an experience, not just a piece of poetry or a piece of music. The cycle takes over an hour to sing which is not only difficult for the performers, but it can also be a challenge for the audience. It makes the experience of this song cycle a very tangible one, and introduces us to death in a very personal, raw way.
Truly a moving and life-changing experience for me.
Here is Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake performing "Die Nebensonnen." A stunning performance.
Other posts in this Winterreise series: