Maybe it’s the bleak midwinter we’re enduring. . . or, better yet, maybe it’s the sheer wonder of Schubert’s songs that has occasioned a recent surge in interest in Winterreise (“Winters Journey”), one of the very last compositions by the composer, who died a few months later, in 1828, at the age of 31. First, published this month was Ian Bostridge’s Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession. It’s a curious book, part-confessional, part musicological treatise, and part cultural history.
Then, appearing on the newsstands today is the new Gramophone magazine, featuring a long cover article on the music and its most famous performers (including Mr. Bostridge).
I have already had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Bostridge sing Schubert, and I have enjoyed other performances by other luminaries, notably Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, whose recording with Joerg Demus ranks high on the Chosen List. It was the Fischer-Dieskau/ Demus reading that reached my ears while still a college student. And maybe its status as a “first hearing” is the reason that is so happily engraved in my ears and on my mind.
Not the dappled woodlands and burbling streams of Schubert’s earlier cycle, Die Schoene Muellerin (“The Beautiful Miller’s Daughter”), no, here are the bare paths and frozen tears of a wanderer out of hope and out of time, singing as he trudges toward a chilly horizon. And finally, in the last song of the cycle, “Der Leiermann” (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man), he bids the shabby little musician, “Will you play my songs for me?” Is it an End, or a Beginning?
A few years before he composed this music, Schubert had a dream. “Whenever I tried to sing of love,” he confessed later, “it turned to pain. And again, when I tried to sing of pain, it turned to love.”
This is not to label Winterreise as one dismal and unrelenting outcry. Rather, there is so much else that moderates and enriches the musical textures and moods, like the sinister circling motifs of “Die Kraehe” (The Crow), the churning wheels of the cozy little mail coach (“Die Post”), and even a dream of Spring (“Fruehlingstraum”).
Ian Bostridge’s book befits the marvels of the music. As a member of a generation of other musician-writers, notably, pianists Graham Johnson and Leslie Howard, he writes with the supple skills with which he performs. It is a must for every music lover—and for the music lover surely to come, who will rush to attend an ear after reading its pages.
Here is an except from Winterreise, the unsettling song, “The Crow”. . .
Crow, strange creature,
Won’t you leave me?
Do you really mean to take
My body here as carrion, soon?