Whenever it snows, I feel happy. I like snow. I like it when the snow flakes dance in the air, when a thick white blanket covers fields and forests, mountains and plains, and absorbs the noise of our society. If you want to enjoy the piece I will present today, you will need some time and a room without noise. Put a sign on the door “Do not disturb”! You certainly deserve a calm moment. And the composer deserves your full attention.
Obsessed by the idea of death
Franz Schubert has composed a cycle for piano and voice of 24 songs called “Winterreise” (Winter Journey) in 1872, the year before his death. A premonition? Some believe in that theory. Others say that the cycle is the culmination of Schubert’s work and, more important, of Schubert’s obsession with death. The cycle (Op. 89, D.911) expresses the suffering of a wanderer who has seen pain and despair and now walks alone through the night, without any hope, without any destination. He walks to meet his end.
The poems that Schubert set to music, have been written by the German poet Wilhelm Müller. I have several preferences:
“Der Lindenbaum” (The Lime Tree): A very sad melody, full of longing for peace – either in this world or in the realm of death. The wanderer is attracted by the lime tree that he passes and has to leave behind. That tree was often associated in the Romantic period with home. But the wanderer must leave his home behind and closes his eyes not to be subjugated by the longing.
“Frühlingstraum” (Spring Dream): It starts with a lively, heartwarming melody illustrating the beauty of nature with birds singing and so one. But then the wanderer wakes up, an it is dark and he hears the crows in trees. Then again the wanderer dreams about a nice girl and love and kisses. But when the sun rises, the wanderer realizes that he is alone and forgotten.
“Täuschung” (Delusion): The wanderer follows a light that promises hope even though he knows he has been deceived. But he prefers to follow a deception to forget about his current misery. Isn’t it crazy how often mankind follows this strategy?
“Der Wegweiser” (The Signpost): This song is very explicit: “I must walk a path that no one ever walked back”. The wanderer is doomed and he knows it.
“Der Leiermann” (The Hurdy-gurdy Man): The last song of the cycle speaks about a player of a barrel organ playing without anyone listening, symbolizing the ultimate loneliness.
Philosophy set to music
Infinite sadness speaks out of these songs, but I do not want you to stop at this first feeling. Schubert has written these songs not to make us feel depressed, but to reach our heart. He wants us to feel the wanderer’s sadness and desolation in order to move us and to make us move beyond mere feelings to self-reflection.
The cycle is more than poetry set to music, it is philosophy set to music. And when I say philosophy, I mean that Schubert invites us to think about our vanity, our transitoriness, the futility of our materialistic wishes and to consider other, more important values like family, friendship, love, trust or truth. Those values were important to Schubert, they kept him going through his short life.
Zen with Schubert
This is where the silent room comes in. Our daily life is driven by forces we seldom control, and I believe it is healthy to escape this relentless activity sometimes and sit in a silent room, listen to Schubert, ponder our attitude towards the world. A zen session with Schubert.
If you’re still with me, I suggest you run to the next record store and grab the recording by Ian Bostridge and Leif Ove Andsnes. And when you’re at it, grab the corresponding book by Ian Bostridge too. And no, I am not ashamed of promoting these two works. They are just brilliant! And they are meant to be contemplated and enjoyed song by song, text by text, melody by melody… not unlike the tasting of one of our excellent Luxembourg Rieslings with all its subtleties!
© Charles Thibo