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.

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:

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