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8.554471 - SCHUBERT, F.: Lied Edition 1 - Winterreise
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DEUTSCHE SCHUBERT-LIED-EDITION, Vol. 1
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Winterreise

 

The Edition

In 1816 Franz Schubert, together with his circle of friends, decided to publish a collection of all the songs which he had so far written. Joseph Spaun, whom Schubert had known since his schooldays, tried his (and Schubert's) luck in a letter to the then unquestioned Master of the German language, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

A selection of German songs will constitute the beginning of this edition; it will consist of eight volumes. The first two (the first of which, as an example, you will find in our letter) contains poems written by your Excellency, the third, poetry by Schiller, the fourth and fifth, works by Klopstock, the sixth by Matthison, Hölty, Salis etc., the seventh and eighth contain songs by Ossian, whose works are quite exceptional.

The Deutsche Schubert-Lied-Edition follows the composer's original concept. All Schubert's Lieder, over 700 songs, will be grouped according to the poets who inspired him, or according to the circle of writers, contemporaries, members of certain literary movements and so on, whose works Schubert chose to set to music. Fragments and alternative settings, providing their length and quality make them worth recording, and works for two or more voices with piano accompaniment will also make up a part of the edition.

Schubert set the poetry of over 115 writers to music. He selected poems from classical Greece, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, from 18th-century German authors, early Romantics, Biedermeier poets, his contemporaries, and, of course, finally, poems by Heinrich Heine, although, sadly, the two never met.

The entire edition is scheduled for completion by 2005. Thanks to the Neue Schubert-Ausgabe (New Schubert Edition), published by Bärenreiter, which uses primary sources - autograph copies wherever possible - the performers have been able to benefit from the most recent research of the editorial team. For the first time, the listener and the interested reader can follow Schubert's textual alterations and can appreciate the importance the written word had for the composer.

The project's Artistic Advisor is the pianist Ulrich Eisenlohr, who has chosen those German-speaking singers who represent the élite of today's young German Lieder singers, performers whose artistic contribution, he believes, will stand the test of time.

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Never are we more exposed to suffering
than when we love; never more helplessly unhappy
than when we have lost a beloved person or their love.

                                                                           -- Sigmund Freud


Winterreise (Winter Journey) is the monologue of a desperate, deeply sad person, disappointed in love. The tale is a strangely moving one; not so much because the protagonist has been jilted by his faithless mistress, who then becomes a rich man's bride, but because of his personal reaction to this situation, or rather, because of the consequences it has for him.

This real-life experience is internalised and becomes so much a part of his own psyche that he can no longer distinguish between his inner world and the world outside, which become strangely confused. Natural phenomena and objects such as snow, ice, wind, a storm, a stream, a river, a will-o'-the-wisp, a linden tree, things created by human hand such as a weather-vane, a sign-post or a cemetery, turn into expressions of his own psychological state. What is more, he does not immediately transfer the love which his beloved has rejected to another person (as any ordinary mortal who believed in life and love would wish to do to protect his ego); instead he re-assimilates it into his own self. The beloved sets up home in his heart which 'seems to be dead': 'her picture is frozen within it' ('Erstarrung').

The jilted lover continues his love affair in narcissistic self-punishment, identifying himself with the ghost of his beloved and nurturing his sufferings: 'When my pain becomes silent, who will speak to me of her?' (No. 4. 'Erstarrung'). Thus, his inability to form a new attachment and his complete loss of interest in the outside world form the tragic pillars of his existence. His flight from the town, 'Where once I had a dear sweetheart' ('Die Post') reveals itself as an attempt to escape from the world. But we cannot run away from the world, 'We are in it once and for all', as Schubert's contemporary Christian D. Grabbe put it.

The rejected lover is overpowered by deep depression; by a fundamental insecurity bordering on desperation, from which memories of his previous existence break off like splinters: 'When storms were still raging I was not in such misery' ('Einsamkeit'), 'You, too, my heart, though wild and daring in strife and storm' ('Rast') to the point of adolescent scornful defiance: 'If there's no God on earth, Then we are gods ourselves' ('Mut!').

But the life-affirming struggle for existence has already been lost, the 'leaf of hope' has fallen to the ground, and he with it. The outwardly directed life-force which lies at the root of the human psyche turns in upon itself, and thereby becomes a self-destroying power. Life's charm seems to him to be a burden: 'Alas, that the air is so calm! Alas that the world is so bright!' ('Einsamkeit'). The currents of his subconscious are sucking him down into the frozen numbness of winter; an isolated outcast, he rejects the world.

All through literature winter has been used as a metaphor for just such extreme loneliness, desperation and desolation, as in the following anonymous poem written in 1467:

Snow has fallen,
And yet it is not the season,
They are throwing snowballs at me,
My path lies deep in snow.

My house has no gable,
It seems it has grown old
The bolts are broken,
In my little room I am cold.

Oh my love, take pity on me,
For I am so forsaken,
Only hold me in your arms,
Then winter will depart.

In despair over his own disillusionment, loss of purpose, over his alienation and cynicism, his ego consumes itself. He permits himself one or two dreams: 'I dreamt of love requited, of a beautiful maiden, Of hearts and kisses, of rapture and bliss' ('Fruhlingstraum'); 'When that day' (on which two maiden's eyes were glowing) 'comes to my mind, I wish to look back again, I wish to stagger back again, and stand still before her house' ('Ruckblick'). His feelings of inferiority make him intuitively aware, at the same time, that he is deluding himself: 'You're laughing, most likely, at the dreamer who saw flowers in the winter' ('Fruhlingstraum'); 'Only illusion can profit me now' ('Täuschung'). He criticises himself in a peculiar vein: his tears, for instance, though they are 'so burning hot' still turn to ice: 'Are you so luke-warm then?' ('Gefrorne Tränen'). In 'Der Wegweiser' he criticizes the 'foolish longing' which has driven him into the wilderness, though he has no sin to expurgate (really?).

Taken together, these contradictions give rise to certain suspicions and we must wonder whether there is something that he is not telling us. And what is the meaning of that 'serpent' which he can pacify by wildly thrashing his way through life but which awakens when he has no other recourse but to himself: 'You too, my heart, though wild and daring in strife and storm, only when it is calm do you feel the serpent's sharp sting within you' ('Rast').

Why does he isolate himself so completely? Why does he cut himself off so uncompromisingly from love in any form, despite his burning longing? Why does he torture himself, delivering himself up freely and demonstratively to his desire for self-destruction? And above all: why is he so disgusted by his own youth ('Der greise Kopf')? Might, in fact, the opposite be true; namely that, far from wishing to die, he longs for his youth to return, and with it his energy and his libido (black hair would then symbolize strength, manliness and potency).

We perceive, albeit dimly, something which seeks expression or possibly self-revelation, namely the misery which has always lain at the heart of love and sexuality, then as now. The realisation that desire and death are often inextricably entwined, in that desire and pleasure are sometimes punished by pitiful decay and a painful end, as though these desires were wicked in themselves. The 'serpent' can be seen as representing the urge to be licentious, to destroy and to deceive, which consumes the human heart.

Did Franz Schubert choose Wilhelm Müller's poems because of his personal experience of this dilemma? Both the poet and the composer died young: Müller was thirty-two, Schubert just one year older. Little is known regarding the cause of Müller's early death. In Schubert's case, it was said to be stomach typhoid; nowadays it is known that he was suffering from a venereal disease. In more straight-laced, prudish times the image of a genius was not allowed to be sullied by associating his unique, god-given talent with an illness of disreputable origin. Today such a combination of aesthetic and moral standards strikes one as inappropriate and unhelpful.

The bouts of severe illness which began when he was twenty, the headaches, skin-rashes, hair loss (Schubert had to wear a wig at one time) - all led to the realization that already at twenty-five his love-life was irreparably damaged and his life-expectancy drastically shortened. This was the cause of his deep gloom at this time, to which a poem he wrote on 8 May 1823 bears witness:

My Prayer

Holy trembling of deep longing
Could I but gain a better world;
I would fill the darkest spaces
With all-powerful dreams of love.

O Mighty Father send your son
As reward for his deep suffering
At last that feast of deliverance:
Your love's everlasting radiance.

Behold, here lies, wasted, in the dust,
The victim of unimaginable grief,
My life's martyrdom,
Nearing its everlasting doom.
End my life and kill me too,
Cast it down, now, entirely, into Lethe,
And let a pure and powerful being,
O Great One, then spring forth.

This cycle of 'terrifying' songs, as he termed them, affected Schubert more deeply than any of his others. Romanticism's dialectic approach to existence, which interprets death as life-enhancing, is reflected in the contrast between the naked emotionality of the poems and the sensitively nuanced music. Seen in this light Winterreise can be understood as a testimony to the human urge to live. 'Every representation is a contrast of opposites' (Novalis): a dialectical approach provides the only means by which the artist can emphasize life's integral paradox: namely, that the self is split between libido and death wish, and, at the same time, to represent this paradox as meaningful.

So the poet does not give up: 'Will you turn your hurdy-gurdy to my songs, too?' ('Der Leiermann') he suddenly asks the strange man standing bare-foot on the ice, playing his simple instrument purely for his own pleasure. The communicative man of melancholy would like to continue now that he has found his drug - art. For him it provides compensation and the sublimation of all his fears, his desperate needs, his life-urge.

Schubert, however, is unable to compose the music for his songs and lets the question fade into nothingness with a monotonous melodic gesture which weaves itself around the empty mechanical sounds of the barrel-organ. The music becomes lifeless. The composer refuses to serve the poet any longer.

Christine Mitlehner
English Translation: Michele Lester


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