Death in Winterreise: Musico-Poetic Associations in Schubert's Song Cycle

Death in Winterreise: Musico-Poetic Associations in Schubert's Song Cycle

Death in Winterreise: Musico-Poetic Associations in Schubert's Song Cycle

Death in Winterreise: Musico-Poetic Associations in Schubert's Song Cycle

Synopsis

Lauri Suurpää brings together two rigorous methodologies, Greimassian semiotics and Schenkerian analysis, to provide a unique perspective on the expressive power of Franz Schubert's song cycle. Focusing on the final songs, Suurpää deftly combines textual and tonal analysis to reveal death as a symbolic presence if not actual character in the musical narrative. Suurpää demonstrates the incongruities between semantic content and musical representation as it surfaces throughout the final songs. This close reading of the winter songs, coupled with creative applications of theory and a thorough history of the poetic and musical genesis of this work, brings new insights to the study of text-music relationships and the song cycle.

Excerpt

Franz Schubert’s Winterreise provides a wealth of material for examining interactions between words and music. Indeed, the song cycle’s deep, many-sided, and often unpredictable quality has produced a wide-ranging body of literature on its text-music relations. Yet the existing literature has far from exhausted Winterreise; there is still much that has not been studied or that merits new interpretations. By examining in detail most of the second part of Winterreise, songs 14–24, this book attempts to complement the picture, incomplete though it will remain. The choice of songs to be studied is based on the cycle’s poetic organization. My intention is to illuminate one narrowly defined area of the musico-poetic aspects of Winterreise, namely, how the notion of death occurs in the poems of the cycle’s second part and how this theme is reflected in the music. The protagonist’s attitude to death changes as the cycle proceeds. Initially, in “Der Lindenbaum” (no. 5) he wishes to avoid death, but ultimately, in the songs that I will discuss (nos. 14–24), death becomes a tempting, even longed-for possibility: death would provide the lonely wanderer an escape from his painful life. It is on this positive view of death that I will concentrate, hence, the discussion of songs 14–24 only. In the poems the desire for death is often contrasted with lost love, the starting point of the wanderer’s desolate winter journey, and I will also elucidate the relationships between lost love and death.

Past love and future death can be seen as combined into one larger subject: they both represent longing, the Sehnsucht characteristic of early German Romantic literature. But to understand the overall unfolding of Winterreise, it is important to keep in mind that the wanderer longs for two objects, not just one: the beloved in the cycle’s first part and death in the second. That neither yearning can be satisfied makes the cycle all the more tragic. The longing for unobtainable love and death is directly related, at a more general level, to a theme that pervades the entire cycle of Winterreise: the juxtaposition of illusion and reality. This juxtaposition affects the course of the cycle in numerous ways, so the examination of death (and its relation to lost love) provides a chance to discuss one facet of this broader theme.

The shift from looking back (to the love of the past) to abandoning hope of regaining the beloved and beginning to look ahead (to a death ultimately desired) is the foundation on which I base my interpretation of Winterreise’s underlying narrative. In short, longing remains the central topic, but the object of the longing changes. The change is not instantaneous, however. Rather, it moves through . . .

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