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A Cycle of Horrifying Songs

By (May 1, 2015) 3 Comments

schubert's winter journey - CopySchubert’s Winter Journey
By Ian Bostridge
Knopf, 2015

I don’t think classical music should be easy. Like many who love it, I wish more shared my enthusiasm; perhaps the concerts should be less expensive, the dress codes more relaxed, the attendees less stuffy, the atmosphere more welcoming. I don’t know. But those who blame people for the insularity of the classical music world, who think millions will start queuing for Schubert or Schoenberg if we chuck aside our staid reverence for the apparent ease of dress-down conviviality, are fooling themselves. They should blame the music.

The truth is that classical music, like literature, painting, or any great art, is often difficult because it has to be. For centuries its best practitioners have been evolving, pushing against the limits of the achievable, creating new forms, refining their techniques, challenging dogmas both popular and elite. In all art, a natural result of the elaboration of expressive language is difficulty.

Interest usually begins with a spark: the music you heard as a child, or a song you chanced to overhear, a record a friend played for you (for me it was the Beethoven sonatas my mother played on our tattered old baby grand). You seek out more, and your taste widens, but at some point you will hit a wall, and you won’t like or you won’t understand what you hear; now, if you want to go further, you have to put in work. Perhaps the best message that the world of classical music can give to the curious – and I admit that it hasn’t been said often or well enough – is that this effort will be rewarded.

I doubt anyone avoids this hurdle, even those who know their art very well. I used to hate Debussy, now I have no idea what I was thinking. I find some of Brahms muddled and confusing to this day, and I’ve always disliked John Cage. And not very long ago I was still avoiding the lieder – the art songs – of Franz Schubert, a composer I cherish dearly. I knew him first from the impromptus, eight piano pieces he wrote in 1827, the year before he died. They’re relatively easy to love, especially the G-flat Major, with its pearly, unbroken melody floating over gently churning quavers. Warm and placid at first, the impromptu grows tense and it’s a shock because those gentle quavers never stopped churning. It settles to stillness on a note of quiet finality:

From there I went to his piano sonatas, which I hold second only to Beethoven’s, and then on to his chamber music and symphonies. I loved them all. I knew some of the songs from transcriptions made by Liszt (a great champion of Schubert’s music) for piano solo. I had scattered encounters with the originals, scored for piano and voice and usually sung by a baritone, but I preferred my Schubert songs without the singing.

A lot of the trouble with classical music is about form. It can be difficult to get a grasp on a large piece of music: you may know the famous “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but it takes the composer more than 40 minutes to get there, and the ode means so much less without the drama it is designed to resolve. A composition might also speak in a strange musical language: the blinding chromaticism of the late Romantics, Debussy’s whole tones, Schoenberg’s eerie dodecaphony, or Scriabin’s mad flirtations with atonality. Study and enthusiasm may carry you through these difficulties, but just as difficult are the random contours of human preference. With Schubert’s songs my problem, to be blunt, was German.

To this particular English speaker, the German language, with its sharp consonants, harsh digraphs, and umlaut nasality, is not the prettiest singing language. (Though it seems great for yelling.) When it’s married to the low sonority of a baritone, the most common register of Schubertian vocalists today, I often find myself wondering if singer has a head cold. German’s distinctive morphology seems also to heighten the innate melodrama of songwriting, and Schubert’s lieder are quite dramatic—no group more so than Winterreise, a bleak, tumultuous cycle of twenty-four songs set to the poetry of Wilhem Müller and composed in the final stages of the illness that would end Schubert’s life. Poor Schubert, lonely and in terrible pain, was still proofing his cherished art songs on his deathbed. His final years were perhaps the most productive of any artist in history:  desperately straining for immortality, locked in a failing body, he churned out masterpiece after masterpiece for quartets, quintets, piano and orchestra. I love so much of it, and find his idiom so sympathetic, that I knew it was shallow to dismiss a work in which he took so much pride—and yet I never put in the effort.

How fortunate, then, to have found Schubert’s Winter Journey, a love-letter by the tenor Ian Bostridge to the composer of his favorite music. Winterreise, in its own peculiar ways, is not easy to love or understand, but Bostridge recognizes that the greatest spur to a reluctant student is the enthusiasm of a fan and the patient elucidation of a friendly voice. One off-putting feature of most classical music writing is the specialization required to read it: you’re simply lost if you don’t have at least a rudimentary understanding of musical notation. Another common failing is the tendency of some writers to rely too often on metaphoric treacle and vague, grandiose proclamations. Bostridge splits the difference and (usually) avoids extremes, punctuating his verbal descriptions with small blocks of neatly printed staffs and quavers, which are easy to follow because the sonic architecture of Winterreise, though ingenious, isn’t very complicated.

Schubert’s cycle is opaque for other reasons, and Bostridge clarifies it in an unconventional way: by devoting the majority of his prose to subjects other than music. As he explains:

Within as diffuse a structure as Winter Journey… there may be recurring patterns or harmonic devices that deserve pointing out; but I tend to do so in what one might call a phenomenological mode, tracing the subjective and culturally loaded trajectories of listener and performer rather than cataloging modulations, cadences, and root positions.

By gathering such a disparate mass of material I hope to illuminate, to explain, and to deepen our common response; to intensify the experience of those who already know the piece, and to reach out to those who have never heard of it.

The best place to start is with Schubert himself, musical heir to Beethoven and Mozart and the first composer to work without the safety net of an aristocratic benefactor. But the myth of the unknown, penniless Schubert has grown out of all proportion to reality: much of his music was unpublished at his death, but as Bostridge points out, sometimes he did quite well for himself, and he was in the end a well-regarded though enigmatic figure in Vienna. “They greatly praise Schubert,” Beethoven’s nephew Karl wrote to his deaf uncle in a conversation book, “but it is said that he hides himself.”

It is more likely that the two rarely saw each other because they traveled in different circles, and because by 1823, the year of Karl’s note, they were both often housebound by spells of illness. Schubert was diagnosed with syphilis just the year before. There was no cure, and so he was compelled to live out the rest of his short life laboring under the specter of an early death. He was tormented, too, by the question of his own worth as a composer, and haunted by a horrible loneliness, a feeling, as he once wrote, that there is “No one to understand the other’s sorrow. No one to understand the other’s joy. We believe that we can reach one another, but in reality, we only approach, and pass each other by. What torment, for those who realize this.”

“The notion of the outcast wanderer,” Bostridge writes, “was a commonplace of Romantic culture Europe-wide,” and the Romantics tried to find meaning, in part, by subsuming their capricious God within the majesty of nature (without, one feels, ever quite convincing themselves). In one of his many unexpected digressions, Bostridge explains that this is why the American frontier held such a fascination for Europeans of the era, who, as a contemporary German magazine put it, were drawn to “the image of a strong life and bold death.” The tales of James Fenimore Cooper were especially popular: it seems the final book to grace Schubert’s deathbed was The Last of the Mohicans, which he read as he attended to proofs of his songs and symphonies.

But for Schubert, joy in nature, like the comforts of friendship and the bliss of romantic love, was always fleeting. The question of his sexuality will never be resolved, but it seems likely that he had romantic feelings for men, and certain that whatever love Schubert had for women was either thwarted or unrequited (another sad parallel with Beethoven). With a mind so turbulent, it is not surprising he found resonance in the poetry of Wilhelm Müller’s Der Winterreise – “I came a stranger/I depart a stranger,” go the opening words – or that his friends did not understand the music he made of it.

Bostridge opens his book with a telling anecdote. “Come over to Shober’s today,” Schubert’s friend Joseph von Spaun recalled him saying,

“and I will sing you a cycle of horrifying songs. I am anxious to know what you will say about them. They have cost me more effort than any of my other songs.” So he sang the entire Winter Journey through to us in a voice full of emotion. We were utterly dumbfounded by the mournful, gloomy tone of these songs, and Schober said that only one, “The Linden Tree,” had appealed to him. To this Schubert replied, “I like these songs more than all the rest, and you will come to like them as well.”

“Der Lindenbaum” (“The Linden Tree”) is the fifth song in the series, and as Bostridge points out, it is the “first time in the cycle that a song starts in a major key.” But Shober, shocked by the first four, perhaps groping for something he could enjoy, seems to have missed the ambiguity in this ostensibly happy song, the ambiguity of all happiness in Schubert’s longer compositions. Müller’s story, and Schubert’s, begins with “Gute Nacht,” in medias res: a man, cheated out of love for reasons that are not quite clear (and never are), walks out of town and into the winter night. The piano mimics his footfalls in the snow, and pleading treble chords reflect his despondency.

The song switches to a major key at the end as the narrator dreams of leaving a mark on his lost love’s gate while she is sleeping, but “as so often in Schubert,” Bostridge writes,

the major seems… sadder than the minor. Its sadness here is partly a question of its fragility: this radiant thought of the girl, asleep and dreaming, is itself a dream. Dreams of happiness, cast in the major key, and all the more heartbreaking for it, are a recurrent aspect of this song cycle.

In the musical language of Schubert’s time, a composition could modulate through many keys, but in order to achieve a sense of closure it would always end on a key sympathetic to the one in which it began. The words and the music of Winterreise begin and end in a mood of resignation, and though the story has many moods, the predominant feeling, at the most basic level, is sadness: for every happy note, there are two of the opposite.

Take “The Linden Tree.” It’s sunny, running figurations and bell-like chords, its bucolic imagery (“here you will find your rest,” the tree calls), were a reprieve for the uncomprehending Schober, who, casting about as any friend would for something positive to say, singled it out for praise.

But the song, like any episode in a long piece of music, must be heard in sequence or its meaning is diminished. “Der Lindenbaum” is preceded by the stormy “Estarrung” (“Frozen Stiff”) and followed by the restless sadness of “Wasserflut” (“Flood,” my favorite), and is itself punctuated by a stormy episode: the narrator has passed the beckoning tree, and now, in Bostridge’s translation, “The colds winds blew/Straight in my face;/My hat flew from my head,/I didn’t turn back.” The music returns to a major key again, reprising the opening theme, and he sings “Now I am many hours/Distant from that spot,/And always I hear that rustling:/You would find rest there.” But the happy resolution is a mirage. The linden tree (Bostridge does a fine job of unpacking its cultural overtones) is a symbol of both life and death. It is asking the narrator to give up, to rest, perhaps forever. Thus the short reprieves of Winterreise are not only momentary, but often illusory. Alfred Brendel, perhaps the greatest Schubertian pianist of the last century, puts it this way:

In his larger forms, Schubert is a wanderer. He likes to move at the edge of the precipice, and does so with the assurance of a sleepwalker. To wander is the Romantic condition; one yields to it enraptured, or is driven and plagued by the terror of finding no escape. More often than not, happiness is but the surface of despair.

Winterreise, it must be said, is often melodramatic, enough that it can seem, in Bostridge’s apt phrase, “almost Disney-like in its clarity of purpose.” It’s easy, especially at first, to dismiss it as an anachronism, a relic of a less restrained, more ignorant time. But it is better to trust the composer and reserve judgment for the end, and that trust is rewarded by the thematic and musical nuances of Schubert’s creative gift. The contrasts between songs and variations of mood keep the cycle from ever feeling uniform, and the nuanced interaction between piano and voice, and between one piece and the next, maintain a tension that belies the cycle’s baleful message of inevitability.

Schubert also has an uncanny ability to mimic the sounds and feelings in Muller’s text, as in the footsteps that open “Gute Nacht.” It is impossible to listen to “Irrlicht” (“Will-o-the-Wisp”) and not hear in Schubert’s abstract tones a playful game of hide-and-seek.

Of the opening lines, Bostridge writes, in a statement that could describe several pieces in Winterreise,

These bars do not sound like regular music; they are not “classical,” or slightly melancholic, or serious, or high-minded. The first two bars [the first four notes we hear] can be something like a shrug of the shoulders—expressive of indifference, feigned indifference, or something else, but with a distinctly casual feel about them. Then the third bar [the series of staccato triplets] can be playful… or teasing, as the wisp, or whatever it is we are seeking, eludes us and pokes out its tongue.

The pattern repeats when the voice comes in with its first line, and the piano accompanies a louder second line, but still, almost inappropriately, in the upper register. The voice quiets, the piano follows it down, and then, about 40 seconds in, “Schubert invents the most wonderful variation on that initial stuttering, lurching, groping third bar—a veritable arabesque.” “The wanderer,” we are meant to see, “is dazed, hallucinating, on the edge.” By the end of the song he is crying in anguish, and then he quiets down, and there are those playful bars again—we begin to feel that fate is toying with our narrator, that life, in addition to being fleeting, is something we cannot control—a fear that plagued Schubert as much as it did any of his contemporaries.

Schubert conjures this sense of madness in the subtlest ways. “Täuschung” (“Deception” or “Delusion”), the twentieth song, is a dance. I knew it from Liszt’s piano transcription as played by the sturdy Leslie Howard, who spent over a decade recording all of Liszt’s piano music for the Hyperion label. Howard plays it slowly and wistfully, and I remember thinking, when I finally listened to the original, that it was too fast. Schubert, of course, did that on purpose. The wanderer is gaily dancing about, following a light (a mirage?) in the distance, singing tremulously that he will give “himself up to the colorful wiles/that behind ice and night and horror/Show him a bright, warm house,/And a beloved soul within./Only delusion is the prize for me!” You can feel the delirium in the music (sung here by the Bostridge, whose tenor I think more appropriate for the song than a baritone):

We end where we began, with desolate resignation, but perhaps, in place of loneliness, a kind of kinship after all. In the final song, “Der Leiermann” (“The Hurdy-Gurdy Man”), the narrator has stumbled upon a disheveled old man playing a hurdy-gurdy, an instrument Bostridge describes as “the fiddler’s version of the bagpipe.” It’s just a box with strings, which vibrate from the motion of a wheel turned by a crank. A drone is its most characteristic sound, and Schubert mimics it in the bass while a ghostly upward line stretches out in the treble, over and over again, as if a mysterious force is calling to the narrator.

No one wants to hear the hurdy-gurdy man, the wanderer sings, and I am alone in this world; perhaps they can make music together, and face oblivion as they could not live life, with a companion walking alongside.

It’s tempting to keep on talking about the songs. I haven’t mentioned “Die Krähe” (“The Crow”), where Schubert summons the vertiginous feeling of staring into the sky with a simple procession of arpeggios, or “Auf dem Flusse” (“On the Stream”), a chameleon-like mini-epic, alternately tender and fearsome. Bostridge understands this temptation well. In only one brief chapter out of twenty-four does he confine himself to a short description of the music. In all the others he branches out merrily, through and beyond the music, into an excursus on ancient legends pertaining to the will-o-the-wisp, or nineteenth century attitudes toward the dance (many feared it caused delirium), or even global warming. I nearly laughed when he broke from the music in his chapter on “Frühlingstraum” (“Dreams of Spring”) and started talking matter-of-factly about water (“water is at once the most ordinary and extraordinary of substances…”], and I chuckled when I turned a page and saw a chart depicting the earth’s mean temperature across the millennia. Yet by the end of the detour he had reminded me of something I had forgotten years ago: the Europeans of Schubert’s time were living through a global cooling spell. For them, the cold and white of winter loomed larger than it does for most of us today; a winter’s journey would be more dangerous, its symbolism more potent, than for a composer in twenty-first century Vienna.

None of this information is strictly necessary to understand or enjoy Schubert’s own winter journey, but if we’re willing, it can, as Bostridge hopes, “deepen our common response” and intensify our appreciation. I am glad that I have it now, just as I am glad to understand the philosophical ideas Beethoven was grappling with when he set Schiller’s ode to music, or how the bewildering changes taking place in fin-de-siecle Vienna helped to convince Schoenberg that only a new system of music could respond to his disordered reality.

I can say the same for any piece of art in any form, but at the very least, the appreciation of difficult art needs our patience, our effort, and our open minds. And ideally, those faculties would be accompanied by the kind of vicarious charge only an enthusiastic tour guide can provide. If the denizens of the classical music world want to do something to grow their insular micro-culture, they can evangelize in this way. I still believe that most people will not notice or care, but I also believe that every spark of interest carefully tended is a life enriched. Schubert, for all the pain he suffered, believed that, too. “I still hear faintly, as if from a distance, the magic echoes of Mozart’s music,” he wrote. And what he said of Mozart we can say of the remembrance of all great and difficult art: “Just so do our souls retain these impressions, which influence for good our whole existence.”

Greg Waldmann is the Editor-in-chief of Open Letters Monthly, and a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.


  • Oliver Conant says:

    Thank you Greg Waldman for your illuminating commentary and the beautifully chosen examples. Reading and listening and watching made for an extraordinarily immersive experience, a kind of journey into a journey. It certainly sparked my interest, in Schubert, in the Winterriese, in Ian Bostridge and his book.

  • David Clarke says:

    I’m not certain classical music, misnomer notwithstanding, needs to be inherently difficult. ‘Winterreise’ is complex but also immediately accessible.

    Most art forms, even those that gross in the billions, (film), have artists pushing the boundaries of its form and pushing accepted conventions. Much of classical music prior to the 20th century consists of melodic and accessible material. But classical music has not been a popular art form since the 19th century. Since then it has mostly promoted its past and turned conference halls into musical mausoleums. Many of its seats are less expensive than major sports events, so cost itself is not prohibitive. But the division offered between Schubert or Schöenberg is; the latter, and many followers since, have consciously sought to create music that was not interested in ‘beautiful’ music that could attract a mass audience. No wonder that the concert hall enshrined Beethoven and mummified itself against the 20th century.

    It is wonderful to have a rich tome such as Bostridge’s to navigate the many musical rivers that flow into and out of Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’. But prior to Schöenberg, well written concert notes and concentrated advertising campaigns should be more than sufficient for a music that is complex but not prohibitively difficult. None of this is original on my part but comes from reading Alex Ross’ ‘The Rest Is Noise’.

  • GW says:

    Hi David,

    Thanks very much for your comment. I’d like to cordially disagree with just about everything you’ve said here.

    Sure, most if not all art forms have artists pushing the boundaries of form and convention, but I don’t think that proves anything. The difference between popular music and classical music is something like, to take your example, the difference between the films of Steven Spielberg and Béla Tarr. One, however expertly, uses simple and familiar expressive language arranged in an easy pattern, and the other, for the most part, does not. One is obvious and the other requires patience. Ditto Beyonce and Beethoven.

    There has always been accessible and popular classical music, but if they’re not short, discrete pieces they are usually broken off in easily digestible chunks. Everyone knows the first movement of Beethoven’s 14th sonata, but how many know the second and third? And most classical music is not even that easy. Winterreise is a perfect example: many of the songs don’t make sense when performed in isolation. The last song, to quote Charles Rosen, “if it were performed on its own, its repetitive monotony would seem absurd, unmotivated.” To understand Winterreise you have know the words and you have to hear the whole thing, and that takes over an hour. You can say the same for much of the repertoire, and the majority of the public is simply not going to invest. Which is perfectly fine.

    That’s why, pace Alex Ross, I find the mausoleum argument unconvincing. If the tickets are affordable, and the symphonies are always playing the greatest hits, why is it still a niche product? Schubert might not be “prohibitively” difficult, but most people are looking for easy pleasure, so he’s difficult enough. Promotional campaigns and good concert notes – I’d argue that good concert talks, 10 minutes of enthused explanation right before the music starts, are even better – will just nibble at the edges.

    (And yes, I’m aware that “classical music” is a misnomer, but we’ve been at this for decades now; it’s become a tired argument and an excuse for pedantry. “Classical music” is the convention, and I refuse to care.)



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