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2 February 2022

The enduring chill of Schubert’s Winterreise

A work ahead of its time, the composer's great song cycle meditates on all our disappointments.

By Phil Hebblethwaite

“Come over to Schober’s today, and I will sing you a cycle of terrifying songs,” Franz Schubert said to his friend Joseph von Spaun in late 1827. Schubert, suffering from a fatal illness, was aware that his time was short. “I am anxious to know what you will say about them. They have affected me more than any of my other songs.”

The cycle, Winterreise (“Winter Journey”), set to music 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller, who died young in September 1827. The pair, although they never met, had history. In 1823, Schubert had used another collection of Müller’s poems for his Die schöne Müllerin (“The Fair Maid of the Mill”) cycle. It tells the story of a journeyman miller and a miller’s daughter that he meets on his travels. He falls in love and tries to seduce her, but she has eyes for another – a hunter. Devastated, the hero ends up dead in a brook.

The emotional journey of Die schöne Müllerin is from promise to despair. Winterreise, however, is an entirely bleak tale, best heard, and most often performed, at this time of year, when it’s bitter outside. Here, we begin at the end of an affair: in the first song, “Gute Nacht”, a man equally unlucky in love leaves the house of a woman who has spurned him and ventures into the freezing, winter night to contemplate his fate. He cuts an increasingly hopeless figure, wandering in a landscape rich with symbols until he reaches a cemetery. Believing he is being denied death, he renounces his faith. In the final scene, he meets a hurdy-gurdy man grinding away on his instrument in the cold. No one is listening. No one has tossed him a coin. Dogs snarl at his feet. “Shall I go with you?” the protagonist asks. “Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?”

[See also: The British Library takes us inside the mind of Beethoven]

Schubert’s friends were “dumbfounded by the gloomy mood of these songs”, according to Spaun. He picked out just one song that he liked, “Der Lindenbaum” (“The Linden Tree”), a moment of nostalgia in a major key from the less harrowing first half of the cycle. Schubert must have been unsettled, but said confidently: “I like these songs more than all the rest, and you will come to like them as well.”

A year later, aged 31, Schubert was dead. His illness was sexually transmitted – syphilis, a death sentence until treatments were discovered in the 20th century. He remains a mysterious figure. His career in Vienna, where he was born on 31 January 1797, has been pieced together, but he didn’t leave much in the way of diaries or letters, forcing biographers to lean heavily on recollections from others. Many of those reminiscences were recorded 40 years after he died, when there was an overdue fever for his music and a recognition of his place among the immortals. In his lifetime, he was known locally as a quality songwriter for hire, promoted and encouraged by his influential group of bohemian friends. He made a living, but never had church or court patronage. Only one of his 15 string quartets and three of his 21 piano sonatas – and none of his nine symphonies – were published before he died.

It’s common to think of Schubert’s music, along with Beethoven’s later works, as forming a bridge between the classical period (Haydn, Mozart, JS Bach’s children) and the full flourishing of romanticism (the Mendelssohns, the Schumanns, Chopin and Liszt.) There’s some truth to that, but his influence reaches further. You hear the sharpness and slashes of terror from his Death and the Maiden string quartet in swathes of modernist and avant-garde music. He was also far ahead of his time in finding a synergy between words and music in the concise three-minute format familiar to us today. “Compressed lyrical insanity” was how Robert Schumann described Schubert’s gift for melody. In The Story of Music (2012) Howard Goodall writes: “The distance in form, intention, mood and expression between Schubert’s songs for voice and piano and those of, say, Adele is remarkably short, considering they are separated by 200 years.”

Schubert, who never married, was outed in 1989 by Maynard Solomon, an American musicologist. But no one can say for sure whether he was gay, straight, or bisexual. Most likely, he was similar to the miller in Die schöne Müllerin – he’d fall hard for women, but was hopeless with them. A short man at just over 5ft, he worked prolifically in the mornings – his output of more than 1,000 works in his short life could be unrivalled – then stepped out in the afternoons, to see friends and drink. At times he suffered from dark moods and a short temper. To the annoyance of traditionalists, suspicious of such speculation, it has become voguish to say that he may have been bipolar.

Friends described opposite impulses in Schubert’s personality. Johann Mayrhofer, a poet and librettist, defined it as “tenderness and coarseness, sensuality and candour, sociability and melancholy”. More dramatically Joseph Kenner, another acquaintance, said long after Schubert’s death: “His body, strong as it was, succumbed to the cleavage in his souls, as I would put it, of which one pressed heaven-wards and the other bathed in slime. Anyone who knew Schubert knows how he was made of two natures, foreign to each other; how powerful the craving for pleasure dragged his soul down to the slough of moral degradation.”

[See also: Stravinsky the shapeshifter]

The most austere works, such as Winterreise, Death and the Maiden, his Sonata in A Minor and Quintet in C Major, were written after Schubert knew he was ill. But to suggest that bleakness overtook him as death approached is to oversimplify an intensely complex man. There is pathos in Schubert’s work from the beginning and, as his biographer Elizabeth Norman McKay points out, “if his social activities are anything to go by, Schubert was in no way depressed or sombre when he composed the first 12 Winterreise songs”. That was February 1827. By the time he wrote the second set in October, however, something in his mood had changed. He was reported to be melancholy and distant, and you can hear this state of mind in his songs. As the protagonist slips into something of an existential crisis – less immersed in his physical surroundings and caught more in a forest of the mind – so the space increases between the piano and vocal lines. Come the meeting at the end with the hurdy-gurdy man, the piano provides the barest of accompaniments.

It’s tempting to imagine Schubert – a loser in love and a victim of fate – seeing himself in the desperate hero of Winterreise. Perhaps he did, but he was careful to create distance in the work in other ways. In his book Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession (2014), the tenor Ian Bostridge notes that Schubert tampered with the order of Müller’s poems, for reasons of musical sense and dramatic effect, and also abbreviated the title by removing the definite article, so Die Winterreise became Winterreise. “He made it more abstract, less definite, more open,” Bostridge writes. “Anyone can own this journey.”

Who is this man? Why was he rejected? A universal underdog is born, in a work that meditates on all of our disappointments and retains the power to entrance and chill.

“Winterreise” will be performed at Wigmore Hall, London W1, featuring Benjamin Appl, and on 18 February and as part of the Leeds International Concert Season on 27 February

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This article appears in the 02 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going Under