Retracing a Winter's Journey: Schubert's Winterreise

Retracing a Winter's Journey: Schubert's Winterreise

Retracing a Winter's Journey: Schubert's Winterreise

Retracing a Winter's Journey: Schubert's Winterreise

Synopsis

I like these songs better than all the rest, and someday you will too, Franz Schubert told the friends who were the first to hear his song cycle Winterreise. These lieder have always found admiring audiences, but the poetry he chose to set them to has been widely regarded as weak and trivial. Susan Youens looks not only at Schubert's music but at the poetry, drawn from the works of Wilhelm M ller, who once wrote in his diary, "perhaps there is a kindred spirit somewhere who will hear the tunes behind the words and give them back to me!" Youens maintains that M ller, in depicting the wanderings of the alienated lover, produced poetry that was simple but not simple-minded, poetry that embraced simplicity as part of its meaning. In her view, M ller used the ruder folk forms to give his verse greater immediacy, to convey more powerfully the wanderer's complex inner state. Youens addresses many different aspects of Winterreise: the cultural milieu to which it belonged, the genesis of both the poetry and the music, Schubert's transformation of poetic cycle into music, the philosophical dimension of the work, and its musical structure.

Excerpt

Franz Schubert Winterreise has been a magnet for musicians and writers on music since its creation in 1827. Recent years have seen the publication of a new edition of the song cycle by Walther Dürr for the Neue Schubert-Ausgabe, as well as the new facsimile edition from Dover Publications of the autograph manuscript in the Pierpont Morgan Library. Arnold Feil, in his monograph on the two cycles Schubert set from Wilhelm Müller's poems (Die schöne Müllerin had appeared four years earlier), has pointed out many previously unremarked features of the songs, and Cecilia Baumann and others have continued the efforts of earlier literary scholars to redress Müller's battered reputation as a second-rate poet. Cultural historians such as Paul Robinson, the music theorist David Lewin, and musicologists such as Anthony Newcomb, Robert Winter, and Kurt von Fischer have examined aspects of the cycle ranging from single songs to questions of tonal-dramatic unity, paper and chronology, and the literary context of the work. Recordings and performances of Winterreise, one of the best known and most challenging of all song cycles, continue to proliferate. More than 150 years after its birth, Schubert's eighty-ninth published opus still compels the fascination due a masterpiece.

No one questions the musical stature of Winterreise, but the poetry that inspired the music, describing the narrator's soul-searching winter wanderings, has not often been so favorably judged. Wilhelm Müller has had a bad press in this century, although an occasional voice is raised to argue the contrary, and several new editions of selected poems, including Die Winterreise, have been published recently, further evidence of critical reevaluation of a poet acclaimed throughout the nineteenth century. It is surely time for musicians to rediscover what Schubert, who was customarily discriminating in his choice of poetry to set, found so powerful in this verse and why he . . .

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