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The Kennedy Center

Winterreise

About the Work

Franz Schubert Composer: Franz Schubert
© Peter Laki

If Winterreise were merely an acute portrayal of a seemingly incurable case of depression (which it certainly is), we would hardly listen to it with the intense pleasure we feel every time a great singer presents it in concert.  The sheer beauty of Schubert's melodies is also insufficient to explain the work's tremendous impact.  It is only when we realize how sensitively the poetic imagery is expressed, even enhanced, by the music at every turn that we begin to understand the significance of this miraculous song cycle.  There is no doubt that Schubert, having composed the vast majority  of his 600 songs by the time he embarked on his ?winter's journey," reached the summit of his art here.

        It was his second and last cycle based on poems by Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827), a German poet only three years his senior who died at the age of 33 the very year Schubert's music was written.  Although Müller is today remembered mainly because Schubert set his poetry to music, he was a significant figure in his own right.  Highly regarded in his own time, he was sometimes referred to as ?Griechen-Müller" (?Greek Müller") because, like his contemporary Lord Byron, he championed the cause of Greek independence.  He exerted a major influence on his contemporary Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), one of the greatest German poets of all time, and found an early English translator in Henry W. Longfellow.

        Schubert's Winterreise came four years after his first Müller cycle, Die schöne Müllerin (?The Miller's Beautiful Daughter") and, in some ways, is a sequel to it.  But whereas the earlier cycle tells a concrete story about the tragic, unrequited love of the miller's apprentice, the later work inhabits a different dimension.  Instead of a storyline, we get isolated episodes of a voyage into the unknown, a desperate man's aimless wandering in a desolate, icy landscape.  Instead of real characters (the miller, his daughter, the hunter, and the personified, very human brook in the forest), we encounter chimeras like a weathervane that the protagonist thinks is speaking to him, a will-o'the-wisp that lures him down a dangerous path, or a vision of the beloved's eyes as two extinguished suns.  And we cannot be sure whether the only other human shape in the cycle, the hurdy-gurdy player of the final song, is real or merely a figment of the protagonist's deluded imagination.

        Neither the poems nor the music was created in one fell swoop:  Müller first published a set of twelve poems, and Schubert had set them to music before discovering the second half of the cycle, which had been published separately.  He then proceeded to compose the rest, completing all 24 songs by October 1827.  The composer himself felt (and told his friend Joseph von Spaun) that these were ?horrifying" songs, and his entire circle of friends were taken aback when they first heard them.  One hundred and eighty-five years later, these songs have lost nothing of their power to shock; almost ?Kafkaesque" in their merciless portrayal of a world in which all hope is lost, they prophetically anticipate many 20th-century artistic developments.  And yet, Schubert was able to couch his grim message in music of beguiling beauty:  even the most horrible truths can be dealt with if given an artistic form of utter perfection.