We have been looking forward to performing this epic group of songs by the German composer, Franz Schubert, for a while now because for both of us, this is a very special piece of music - it’s one of those pieces of art that seems to get better with age (and I do mean that in the many senses of the word). It’s one of those pieces that when we first ran through them and then at every subsequent rehearsal we found ourselves saying at the end of every piece, “Wow. I just love that one.” You can be sure that’s what we’ll be thinking when we get to the end of each of these songs this afternoon.
So what is it about Winterreise that is so different? Why do we love it so much and why has it moved so many others?
For me, this piece of music is more than just a set of songs that are loosely tied together. It is a haunting autobiographical sketch of one man’s struggle to come to grips with life, love, and his own death. And when I say autobiographical, I truly mean it. Schubert didn’t write the poems, a poet by the name of Wilhelm Muller did. But Schubert found these poems and was drawn to set them to music when he, in his early thirties, was secretly dealing with syphilis which would lead to his death in less than a year after completing the songs. But in spite of the circumstances, in spite of the subject, these songs apparently made him very happy. As was typical for him, one evening he gathered together with some friends of his, in a room probably much the same size as this, and performed the cycle for them both playing the piano and singing. The reception was mixed and it’s not hard to see why. His friends couldn’t understand why these dark songs excited Schubert so much. Upon hearing their puzzlement, Schubert apparently jumped up, saying, “These songs please me more than all the rest, and in time they will please you as well.”
These are not just ordinary songs.
They are not ordinary because in them so many things come to life. Throughout the course of the song cycle you can listen for so many things, especially in the piano part:
- a weathervane wildly changing direction
- ice cracking
- a river flowing underneath ice
- a crow circling overhead
- one solitary leaf dangling precariously from a branch
- dogs barking
- tree branches rustling
- an organ grinder slowly churning out a melody
And that’s just to name a few. So as you follow along with the translation in the program, keep your ears open for a musical translation of what you’re reading. And afterwards, feel free to come up and let us know if you heard anything else!
Winterreise is truly a journey. Not just for the protagonist in the song cycle but for everyone involved with the performance. For a singer to sing for an hour and 15 minutes without a break is quite a feat. For the pianist to maintain the concentration necessary to highlight the singer is also a challenge. And we can’t leave out you, the audience. Listening can be a challenge too. But the challenge puts us all in the same shoes as the main character of these songs. So if you find yourself drifting off here or there, that’s ok, just go with it. If you find yourself exhausted, that’s ok too. But we hope that you will also find something moving in these notes and words.
To preserve the storyline and drama of these songs we will be performing without any applause in between pieces. So here we go - we’ll see you at the end!