Alfred Brendel: Schubert’s Winter Journey

Review of Schubert's Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession by Ian Bostridge (Knopf, 2015)

Among musical compositions of the highest order connected with the figure 24, the songs of Winterreise occupy a special place. They do not relate to the complete set of 24 major and minor keys as do Bach’s Preludes and Fugues of the Welltempered Clavier or Chopin’s Préludes. Schubert’s Winterreise embraces twice a dozen songs which do not offer a kaleidoscope of diverse musical characters and conditions but maintain a continuous state of mind. They do not constitute a process, a narrative like their cyclical predecessor “Die schöne Müllerin” but dwell in a kind of desperate stasis that horrified Schubert’s friends. The fact that Wilhelm Müller’s poems do not strive to be romantically enchanting has earned them Heinrich Heine’s approval. 

When Schubert was born, Vienna was the musical capital of Europe. Of the three composers who earned the city its pre-eminence, Mozart was dead, Haydn had more or less retired, and only Beethoven was still active until very nearly the end of Schubert's short life. Living in the same city but hardly, if at all, being in touch both wrote their amazingly audacious final chamber music works virtually next door to one another, and independently of each other, within a period of little more than three years. In 1827, the year Beethoven died, Schubert had started composing Winterreise, his supreme song cycle.

After the death of Schubert’s favourite singers Vogl and Schönstein there was hardly a Viennese Schubert tradition to speak of. With the exception of Brahms, who resided in Vienna, and the Hellmesberger Quartet, all other major musicians who championed Schubert's music were passing visitors from abroad. Similarly, few of the renowned singers, conductors and pianists have been, or are, Austrian. In his enthralling book on Winterreise Ian Bostridge writes that Schubert's music “was played by most of the great instrumentalists of the day”. There, for once, Bostridge is mistaken. Besides the Schuppanzigh Quartet that premiered his string quartet in A minor – and rejected Death and the Maiden telling Schubert to stick to composing songs in the future – I can only think of Karl Maria von Bocklet whom Chopin called one of the best pianists in Vienna.

In the years before the First World War, Schubert became popular as a kitsch figure, triggered off by Rudolf Hans Bartsch's novel “Schwammerl” and reinforced by the gruesome operetta “Lilac Time”. Here, the famous tenor Richard Tauber who had started off as an esteemed Mozart singer dragged Schubert into an abyss of bad taste.

After the Second World War, there followed a radical reaction: now Schubert had to be relentlessly depressive and, on top of that, homosexual. It helps to remember that Schubert (literally up to his death - Der Hirt auf dem Felsen is one of his very last compositions) was able to write happy and radiant music. As Bostridge aptly remarks: “It is undoubtedly true that there is no clear and prescriptive relationship between life and art or art and life. To put it at its most crass, Schubert wrote jolly music when he was gloomy, and gloomy music when he was jolly.”

Who is the figure Winterreise very indistinctly presents? A pathological case? (Bostridge speaks of “the madness of the wanderer”.) A hysteric? A depressive? To me, he seems to be an alienated melancholic, Romantic-Biedermeierish in the wake of Byron and of Goethe's Werther, and beset by post-Napoleonic political frustration. Not a madman but “teetering on the edge of unreason” as Bostridge calls it in his comment on Der Leiermann.

The absurd, the comical in Winterreise should, in Bostridge's view, never be resisted. In Der Greise Kopf he even finds a “laughing” triplet figure. There is certainly irony in Müller's poems. Wilhelm Müller was a poet whom Heine admired; he translated Marlowe into German, and died, little older than Schubert, in 1827. Reading his poems aloud there are passages where the irony is obvious, and can be spoken very differently to the way Schubert composed them. I can readily see Winterreise in connection with Beckettian absurdity. But is it in Schubert's music? What I would dispute is that Winterreise is ever comical. It's the only thing Schubert's music is not. He belonged for a while to a Viennese club called “Unsinnsgesellschaft” (Nonsense Society) but his compositions do not betray this at all.

Schubert's close connection with literature was supported by his friends and admirers: poets, composers, painters, amateurs and state officials who frequently met to recite Goethe and discuss the newest poetry that had appeared in print. The fusion of words and music that Schubert achieved was not merely a result of his unique melodic gifts. His interpretation of the poems extended to the piano part a novel and comprehensive way of revealing atmosphere, psychology and the words' poetic layers. On the piano, suddenly anything could be expressed. The introduction of each song presents the basic mood or even crystallizes several strands of a poem. The prelude of Im Dorfe famously compresses barking, rattling and snoring in one brief idea, while that of Der Lindenbaum combines the murmur of the well, the rustling of the linden tree, and the sweetness of dreams. Since Schubert, it became impossible to separate the singing line from the accompaniment. And since Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who did more than anyone else to bring Schubert's Lieder to international attention, the accompanist has mutated into a partner. In his thirty recorded performances of Winterreise several of his piano partners are soloists.

With “Schubert's Winter Journey, Anatomy of an Obsession”, Ian Bostridge proves to be one of the most compelling writers among musical performers, an author as erudite and vivid as he is entertaining. In his words: “Living a piece as complex and resonant as Winterreise means engaging with it in all sorts of ways: understanding what it might mean for us now, as a message in a bottle set afloat in the cultural ocean of 1828. How does it relate to our concerns? How does it connect with us, however unexpectedly?” Bostridge provides answers rich in associations and fascinating digressions, and presents veritable little seminars on topics that often gain a surprising relevance to the understanding of text and score. There is an influx of various disciplines: history and natural history, physics, literature, and psychology, to mention only a few, generate a wealth of detailed information communicated with a rare immediacy on the borderline between good speaking and good writing. What I miss in this multifaceted volume is an index.

As a rule, each song is adorned with a specific essay. Die Wetterfahne informs us about marriage contracts in Metternich's time; Der Lindenbaum brings in Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain; Auf dem Flusse provides an exploration of ice, and the political ice age of Metternich; Rast muses about black and white, police and censorship and the relationship between art and form; Einsamkeit connects, in one of the finest chapters, Byron, Caspar David Friedrich, Rousseau and Wilhelm Müller; Der Greise Kopf exploits “Beckettian resonances”; Der Wegweiser informs us with admirable lucidity about Schubert's failing health; Das Wirtshaus deals with Schubert and religion; and Die Nebensonnen surprises us with an explanation of phantom suns. On the way, in a piece on tears and crying, we learn that “the tears shed in emotion contain 20-25 percent more protein than those produced when chopping onions.” For the final song, Der Leiermann, Bostridge invokes Bob Dylan. “It's not a million miles from his jingle-jangle to Schubert's hurdy-gurdy.” Yes, but let's settle for a few thousand. If this is a song that should be rather spoken than sung artists like Lotte Lehmann and Peter Anders who recorded Winterreise in the 1940s could teach many a singer today how to speak.

Bostridge's “Winter Journey” is destined to reach a wider audience. It refrains from musicological jargon, explains technical terms and translates any foreign language quote. To the musical and literary privilege comes Bostridge's visual sense. The book is greatly enhanced by the discerning choice of its illustrations. Never has the juxtaposition of Schubert and Caspar David Friedrich seemed more pertinent. The inclusion of George de la Tour's Hurdy-Gurdy Player is as inspired as, on the witty side, that of Dürer's Six Studies of Pillows in connection with Im Dorfe (where pillows are mentioned just once), as well as the depiction of the nine positions of waltzing that illuminates Täuschung (“a light dances in front of me”). We also savour the contemporary information that “ten to eleven thousand deaths occurred annually in Vienna. The cause of death for about one fourth of these is consumption which can be brought on by immoderate waltzing” - a matter of ballroom dust damaging the lungs.

There is, however, an item where I heartily disagree. In his chapter on Wasserflut, Bostridge's focus is on the rhythm of this song, for once depriving the reader of fascinating ruminations on the psychological roots of fatigue or the physiological causes of limping. The bone of contention is triplet assimilation: should, in Schubert, the sixteenth note following a dotted eighth note be played simultaneously with the third triplet note as a “dotted triplet”? And should the printed page reproduce Schubert's way of writing faithfully and place the sixteenth note under or above the last triplet note, and not after it as printers conventionally do? In a song that is pervaded by such rhythms, and not only there, these are crucial questions. Bostridge pleads for polyrhythm while I insist on assimilation. (I am most grateful for the utterly civilized way in which Bostridge conducts this argument.)

As I see it, this issue is a matter not of opinion or taste but of fact. Both the autograph and the first print which Schubert corrected make it very clear that assimilation is called for. No composer in a sane mind would have written down the final sixteenth note of the right hand in bars 3, 17 and 45 as Schubert did if polyrhythm was intended: he would have written the note after the chord. (In Bostridge's book, regrettably, only the first bar of the autograph is reproduced.) Here is the first print which follows the notation of the autograph:

Why has this question resulted in so much confusion? Part of the blame goes to the printed editions. Max Friedländer's creditable one, probably the most frequently used for a long time, prints the semiquaver after the triplet. Even the edition graced with Fischer-Dieskau's name, while trying to be accurate and generally having sixteenth notes underneath the last triplet note, misplaces the last semiquaver of bar 3. And the new Bärenreiter perpetuates the misleading visual picture though it rightly mentions in a footnote that, as the sources suggest, adjustment of the rhythm is advisable. Rhythm is also a visual matter: the notation should help the player to grasp it at once with his eyes.

Gerald Moore, the celebrated accompanist, had stated categorically that the rhythm of Wasserflut “should be played as it looks on the score”. The question is: on which score? If it is the manuscript and the first print that are consulted I am delighted to agree. Unfortunately these sources have for a long time hardly been considered. Among the performers of the past, Julius Patzak with Jörg Demus, Peter Schreier with Sviatoslav Richter and Peter Pears with Benjamin Britten are the conscientious exceptions; on their recordings they render the rhythm properly, as did Fischer-Dieskau and Matthias Goerne in all the performances I shared with them.

But there is, besides the philological evidence, a further reason for disagreement. The musical result of adjustment sounds to me much superior to the fanciful notion of the “dragging effect given verisimilitude to the picture of the tired wanderer half-blinded by tears” (Gerald Moore). Here, as in several other instances of Schubert's music, the simpler rhythmic solution is the natural, and Schubertian, one.

And what about Beethoven? some musicians will ask. Look at his so-called Moonlight Sonata: surely, in its first movement, the upper voice should not be adjusted to the continuous triplet rhythm. No, it shouldn't indeed. But then, Beethoven already applied a modern and literal notation while Schubert, another pupil of Salieri, still clung to practices derived from the Baroque, and not just in his triplet notation, but also in countless suspended notes, so-called appoggiaturas, that had been thankfully unraveled in Friedländer's edition. In his comments on the playing of Beethoven's piano works, the composer’s pupil Czerny warns of adjustment in Op. 27 no. 2 – which suggests that it was still practised by many.

Now there may be those who say that one could decide to go against the letter for the purported gain of a rhythmical structure that sounds more adventurous. Bostridge writes: “The score is of course more than a mere recipe, and it provides a necessary and containing discipline for performers, something to kick against.” I prefer to score a few Schubertian goals.

In defense of the unnamed critical listener who, during Wasserflut, irked Bostridge by turning to his neighbor, I should say that I, as a soloist, always avoided recognizing fellow musicians in the audience by all means. As a singer, I would probably have closed my eyes like Karajan, who conducted with eyes shut, and was famously asked by a member of the audience whether he needed a guide dog. However, I cannot but admire the perceptiveness of Bostridge's mind that, while trying to move his listeners, managed to make out not only three different musicians but also the precise location where they were sitting (rows H and I).

It took a long time for cyclical works of music to be performed as an entity. Julius Stockhausen was the first to sing the whole of Winterreise in public in the 1850s whereas Clara Schumann still left out pieces in Schumann's cyclical piano works or performed selected numbers from the song cycles. Busoni may have been the first to present Chopin's Preludes and Etudes in their entirety. Today, we hear Winterreise complete and uninterrupted unless singers like Ian Bostridge decide to program the first twelve songs only, a cycle in itself that was written and published before the dozen to follow.

I have heard Winterreise presented straightforwardly or whimsically, tragically or laconically, calm or frenzied, old or young (the miller's apprentice in Die Schöne Müllerin is definitely younger), poised or deranged, fast or very slow indeed (Richter with Schreier), sung by higher or lower voices male or female, offered in terms of cantabile singing or quasi-spoken. The fact is that Schubert, apart from a few rare dynamic indications, doesn't grant any markings to the singer – they are all to be found in the piano part. Slurs are only written down when a syllable is sung on more than one note. That means that the singer has to make a lot of decisions, instinctive decisions mostly, how to let the notes follow each other, where to sing quasi-legato, and where to connect two notes by “portamento” (sliding up or down), a practice that can sound utterly natural if applied in the right places with the right conviction. (Listen to Lotte Lehmann.) He or she will also decide, whether consciously or unconsciously, how to sing long notes, how to colour the words with vowels open or closed, dark or luminous, and which consonants to stress for expression and distinctiveness. There are the prerequisites: a captivating quality of voice; the mastery and beauty of singing; the feeling for musical connections – from note to note, harmony to harmony, phrase to phrase; the range of feeling; the unity of words and music (never at the expense of the words); the plasticity of diction.

Among performers of Winterreise the Austrian tenor Julius Patzak, who apparently never needed to have a singing lesson in his life, stands out in my memory not only because his was the first Winterreise I ever witnessed (in 1964, Patzak was 66 years old) but because he had an unforgettable way of giving colour to words like “Schnee”: shining white. His Lindenbaum was the most moving by being utterly simple.

Winterreise doesn't need updating, embellishing, transcribing or paraphrasing.  There have been numerous attempts to film it or bring it on stage. I remember Peter Pears on TV tucked in a heavy winter coat and braving the snow, or another singer who was made to fly through the air like a crow. There has also been a performance on the viola in which the lack of words and their declamation made for a gaping void even for musical viewers who didn't know German. According to Bostridge, “the imaginative space that a singer creates enhances the performance of song. The audience has no set up props to engage with – only the music, the instrument, the bodies of the performers, the face of the singer.”

Ian Bostridge's book is brilliant and unique. But it is, of course, a book and not the performance. After reading it we may listen differently to one of the supreme works of art that, despite being tainted by death, makes life worth living.

© Alfred Brendel 2019

Reproduced by kind agreement with Faber & Faber

© Website developed by Iain C. Phillips