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.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Seizing control of life & death: "Mut (Courage)"

I have read and heard that before people die, they often experience a sudden burst of energy. Well, that is where we are in Winterreise. In "Mut (Courage)," our protagonist seems to jump up, trying to seize control of both life and death, all in one fell swoop. Here are the words to this short, but not necessarily sweet song. (The translation is going to be mine again to avoid copyright issues so please bear with me!)

The snow flies in my face,
I shake it off.
When my heart in my chest speaks,
I sing loudly and merrily.

I do not hear what it tells me,
I have no ears.
I do not feel what it laments,
lamenting is for fools.

Cheerfully into the world I go,
against the wind and storms.
If there is no God on earth,
then we ourselves are Gods!

Well, that just about says it all! Combined with Schubert's fiery music, it is all about courage, at least for this brief moment. Phrases are all a regular length, giving the piece stability; both the voice and piano part are full of sweeping, energetic gestures up and down scales and arpeggios; accents litter the page once again, and dotted rhythms lend an air of momentary triumph or determination. I can't help but get caught up in the energy.

Perhaps there are some people out there that don't interpret Winterreise in the way I do - that the protagonist in this story is a man who is facing his imminent death. But in all honesty, by this point in the song cycle, I can't see it any other way. Maybe it's because I just watched my own family walk with my grandfather to the end of his life and I witnessed, through my parents, the various stages one goes through. Maybe it's because I have always had a tremendous fear and reluctance to think about my own eventual death. Or maybe it's because I know that Schubert knew that he too was dying yet felt very proud and energized by this epic poetic and musical journey. Whatever the reason or reasons, I am now at a point where I feel like I'm one step closer to understanding death in a very tangible way, if that's possible. Forget seances, forget reading about near-death experiences, I will just sit and experience Winterreise.

Amazing. And some folks say classical music isn't relevant.

Here is Ian Bostridge's fiery video of "Mut." He is joined by pianist Julius Drake. It's fantastic and full of the spirit that I imagine Schubert would have appreciated.

Other posts in this Winterreise series:

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Waiting for death: "Das Wirtshaus (The Inn)"

"Das Wirtshaus."

This song leaves me speechless, especially when it follows on the heels of the previous song, "Der Wegweiser (The Signpost)."

Both songs have this affect on me because they make the process of dying a tangible, palpable experience. Along with the songs that are yet to come in the cycle, they encompass so many different stages of death; they put into words and music the wide array of raw emotion that I imagine one might feel when approaching one's end. In "Der Wegweiser" I walk alongside our friend as he begins to accept his fate and as he consciously steps onto that final path. In "Das Wirtshaus," I actually feel the weight of this tired soul as he leans against me for support, his exhaustion clearly sapping away what the life he has left. But in this song, I am also overcome with a feeling of great peace. In his poem, Müller turns a graveyard into a place of rest and through his music, Schubert fills this sacred space with music that could soothe any soul. It is the sound of an organ, the sound of voices singing, the sound of music that stops time, that gives us this gift of peace.

Yet this is not the end. We can hear the agony that comes with waiting for death at the end of this song through the harmonies that Schubert uses.  With just a few well chosen notes, the music is able to manipulate my emotions, causing me to step into our traveler's well-worn boots to experience this process that is so difficult to put into words.  

I could write more but I don't want to. I really just want you to listen to the music. I believe it speaks for itself.

Click here to read the text of the poem.

And here is Ian and Julian with their performance.

Other posts in this Winterreise series:

Monday, September 27, 2010

An intimate view of facing one's fate: "Der Wegweiser (The Signpost)"

So it seems like we know where our friend is headed in this winter's journey. But did you know that he is not alone? There is actually one more person intimately involved with this story. At least this is what I have come to believe.

The answer lies in the notes and is interwoven with the incredible music that accompanies the text.

The other person is Franz Schubert himself.

Schubert composed this work in two parts with the first part being completed in February of 1827 and the 2nd part in October of that same year. The composer was only thirty years old at this point but he found himself in a similar situation as we now find our protagonist in Winterreise. It is generally accepted that Schubert, by this point in his life, was well aware that his life was at its end so I can't help but wonder if these songs give us a glimmer of how he was dealing with his own impending death. I find this possibility a bit horrifying but also breathtaking and it also helps me understand the delight he seemed to express when he stated, "These songs please me more than all the rest." (Haywood, 1939, via the "Winterreise" entry on Wikipedia.) As I was beginning my own "Winterreise" with learning and blogging about this song cycle, I was curious about the power and hold this song cycle has on so many listeners. "It's a bunch of overdramatic whining!" "It's too depressing!" "It's too long!" were my initial thoughts although I myself had been sucked into its grasp years ago at a live performance. As we near the end of this journey together, however, these questions seem to have fallen by the wayside and now I find that I can't play or listen to these closing songs without getting a catch in my throat and without tears. I know, I know, it might seem crazy but at the same time, how can one not be so moved when we are looking straight into the heart of a man who was more than a character in a poem?

I'd say that "Der Wegweiser (The Signpost)," the twentieth song of the cycle, is the first one that makes me weep. Schubert has managed to share a person's most personal emotions through music. But how does he do this? How does he put us in his shoes and what makes this song so powerful?

At the beginning of the song, we are faced with with a 5-bar phrase. We've been seeing odd-numbered phrases more and more during this second half of Winterreise so I can't help but think Schubert had a reason for making such a choice. Here is the introduction, first played as a 4-bar phrase and then as it is actually written:

That fifth measure makes us sit in silence for just a brief moment before the voice enters. Silence can either make us feel at rest or it can make us feel uncomfortable.  In this case, I find the rest a bit awkward, making me squirm just a bit.

In the first verse we hear the contrast between the roads most travelers take, underscored in the music by simple harmonies that don't go much of anywhere, and the hidden paths that our friend seems to be seeking that we can hear in the piano's meandering harmonies.

We are now at a very brief interlude which is only three measures long - another odd-numbered phrase. This time instead of silence, however, we hear a repeated "F" in the piano part. In the video of this interlude, I play it first as a two-measure phrase and then as written. Try to latch onto the repeated "F" and sense how that repeated note makes you feel.

Just as we are getting pulled into the despair of that one note, Schubert suddenly reveals a change in emotion and he shifts from F minor to F major. In this brief, more optimistic moment, our weary traveler reflects back on his life, stating that he believes he has done nothing wrong.  He seems to be weighing his own life on the scales of justice, perhaps seeking some assurance for what lies ahead.

That optimism does not last, however, and our mind is brought back yet again to the moment at hand. We are greeted by another 7-bar interlude that takes us back to the twisting path and we are again left hanging before the voice enters for the third verse.

Here, the first verse returns as our traveler is forced back on to the road even though he longs for rest.

Now we come to what I think is the most heartbreaking part of this song, perhaps of the whole song cycle. The wanderer is standing in the middle of the road but now acknowledges that there is one signpost that he can now see.  Listen to how Schubert sets the words, "I see a signpost standing, immovable before my eyes. A road must I travel, from which no man has ever returned."

By the end of the song, that "F" that has been repeating like a death knell has sunk deep into my heart and it leaves me with a glimpse of what it might be like to be faced with one's own death.

Chilling. Haunting. Breathtaking.  In all honesty, it's not something I really want to hear.  But it makes this cycle more than just a melodramatic, fictional set of songs.

The video I'm including for this powerful song is of baritone Eugen Hilti. I don't know anything about him and I don't know who the pianist is, but I find his use of images very compelling.

And here is Ian and Julian with their interpretation:

Click here to see the text for this song.

Other posts in this Winterreise series:

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Nearing the end of one man's journey: "Der stürmische Morgen (The Stormy Morning)" and "Täuschung (Illusion)"

After finally succumbing to sleep in the previous song, "Im Dorfe (In the Village)," we are woken up the next morning by a sudden, quick burst of energy. "Der stürmische Morgen (The Stormy Morning)" is Winterreise's shortest song but it has the same effect on me musically as does slamming the door in someone's face. The music feels jagged and edgy thanks to Schubert's use of multiple rhythms, accents both on and off the beats, and irregular phrase lengths. As I had mentioned in a previous post, I am going to generalize by saying that most phrases in music from this period and earlier, tend to be made up of an even number of measures; this tends to give the music a clean, symmetrical, rounded off feeling. In this song, we start off with a 3-bar phrase (the piano's introduction), followed by a 5-bar phrase when the voice enters. Paired up with the accents in the piano part, I think the uneven phrase lengths at the beginning make me envision our protagonist as a stumbling, angry man. In the middle verse we get a 4-bar phrase in which the stumbling seems to cease for a moment but then he falls right back into another 5-bar phrase to finish off the song in a mad flourish. I should add that although I used the word "angry" and "mad" to describe our friend, I don't know that he's actually mad at anything in particular. In my mind, this is one of the character's final bursts of energy and emotion before he begins his final journey and to me it has some a strong sense of resolve, a quality we haven't seen much of thus far in the cycle. I also find it interesting to note that this is the only song thus far to end forte, or loud. I think we're dealing with a different man here.

Here is Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake performing:

Click here for the text of "Der stürmische Morgen."

"Täuschung (Illusion)," serves as the flip side of the emotional spectrum. Whereas the previous song showed the more fiery side of resolve, this one shows a more peaceful resolution. Although our friend is greeted by several illusions, a light dancing before him and a vision of a house with a "beloved soul" inside, he embraces them, acknowledging fully what they are and accepting them willingly as a last taste of wistfulness.

Here is the text for "Täuschung."

And here is the video:

Other posts in this Winterreise series:
Waiting for Death: "Das Wirtshaus (The Inn)"
Seizing control of life & death: "Mut (Courage)"

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

An unsuccessful attempt at resisting sleep: "Im Dorfe (In the Village)"

"Im Dorfe (In the Village)," the seventeenth song in Schubert's Winterreise, is another one of those songs that left me scratching my head at first.  I didn't sense a connection between the words and the music which left me feeling a bit uninspired by the song.  But over the past few days, after writing the blog posts for the preceding songs, I've finally come up with an interpretation that makes sense, at least to me.  Let's see if I can put it into words.

I think it might be helpful first to replay where we have been thus far and where we think we are as this song begins.  We have our protagonist, a traveling musician, who recently left the last village he worked at because of a failed relationship with his beloved.  He is a man that is used to traveling, used to having to move from village to village.  But this particular exit has been more difficult.  Although he's probably used to having to say "goodbye," this particular parting is forcing him down a new path.  After a time of grappling with his memories and with the need to move forward, our friend is starting to let go of the past and starting to look for a more permanent, predictable path.  In the previous three songs, "Der greise Kopf (The Grey Head)," "Die Krähe (The Crow)," and "Letzte Hoffnung (Last Hope)," the path of choice seems to be one that ends at the grave.  Our protagonist is worn-out in body and in mind, his regular footsteps have been almost completely silenced, and his hopes have run dry.  We watch him at his arrival at yet another village.

Quite frequently I find myself resisting sleep at the end of the day. I imagine that just about everyone has nights like this. Whether it's because I haven't accomplished all that I wanted to accomplish, or because I simply enjoy being awake and living, it can be quite amusing to watch myself avoid the inevitable onset of sleep. In this song, I sense that we are seeing this same scenario play out. In many of the songs that involve sleep, exhaustion, and dreams, Schubert seems to use lots of repetitive notes in either one or both hands. The result is a slowing down of harmonic motion, a lessening of tension. "Im Dorfe" is full of this type of writing. In the first and last verses time is suspended with the repeated chords in the right hand, accompanied by slow-motion trills in the left hand that end with an odd little shudder - this quick tail to the slow trill makes me think of someone trying to shake themselves awake . Halfway through the first verse, the hands switch musical material. At the end of the verse, Schubert then does something absolutely incredible. He includes the first line of the second verse, "And in the morning, all will have vanished." As with dreams, there is no clear beginning or end of the verses - a small detail, perhaps, but to me it's a clue as to how Schubert may have interpreted Müller's poem.

The second verse no longer has the same accompaniment but it too goes practically nowhere, harmonically speaking. In terms of rhythm, it is even more static than the first verse, only made up of eighth and quarter notes. There are no shifts in key as the piano part hunkers down around the note, "C." Perhaps our friend has actually drifted into sleep a bit? At the end of this verse, the right hand of the piano meanders back into the opening material, possibly a slight stirring of our protagonist who seems desperate to not succumb to sleep. In the third verse we hear those brief shudders again. But this time, Schubert changes the piano part, supporting the voice with more of a chorale-like accompaniment that finally manages to send our friend into sleep.

I said at the beginning of the post, that at first I felt a discrepancy existed between the text Müller wrote and Schubert's music. The images that I was most confused by were the barking dogs and rattling chains. As hard as I tried, I could not hear them in the music. Well, thinking of this poem as our friend's journey into sleep, I don't believe our protagonist hears them either. The music beautifully mimics real life since our hearing seems to be one of the first things that shuts down as we are falling asleep.

Schubert, you were brilliant! This is a psychological and a physiological journey, indeed!

I found an interesting, very interesting, interpretation of this song by "Soap and Skin." I have no idea who this is and I'm having trouble discovering much about her, but I'm posting it both because it's a creative interpretation and also because it takes my interpretation to the tenth degree.

And here's Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake's:

Click here to see the text for this poem.

Other posts in this Winterreise series: