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Book Review: Schubert’s Winter Journey

By (January 11, 2015) No Comment

Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsessionschubert's winter journey olweekly 2015

by Ian Bostridge

Knopf, 2015

Franz Schubert composed his 24-song cycle “Winterreise” in 1828 while he was suffering not only from the advanced stage of his syphilis but also, as Ian Bostridge harrowingly clarifies in his vivid, impressionistic new book Schubert’s Winter Journey, from the cures that were almost as bad as the disease:

[Joseph] Von Vering’s two manuals, The Treatment of Syphilis by the Inunction of Mercury (1821) and Syphilido-therapie (1826), give us a painful sense of the torturous indignities Schubert suffered in addition to his syphilitic symptoms. No meat, no carbohydrates. No milk, coffee, or wine – only water and tea. A hot room (up to 29 degrees centigrade) with no open windows, no change of underwear or bedding, no washing except rinsing the mouth. The patient may not leave the room as long as the treatment continues. An unguent of lard and mercury was to be applied to various parts of the body every second day; the mercury would have been absorbed (topically, and in greater quantities if inadvertently, by inhalation) in concentrations which by present-day standards would be considered highly toxic.

Although even as late as 1828 Schubert could still experience periods of remission in which he could go on long walks and visit with friends in cafes, the tertiary stage of syphilis is a horrifying, disfiguring nightmare, and it’s all the faithful, well-meaning Bostridge can do to divert suspicion that the “Winterreise” is at least as much the product of a spirochete as it is of genius. Bostridge generously allows that the whole musical form of the ‘art song’ is a niche even within the niche market of classical music and one that’s never regained the brief heyday it experienced in Schubert’s era. He doesn’t go so far as to say that the “Winterreise” is maudlin, unlistenable treacle – quite the contrary, he seems genuinely fond of the work, and Schubert’s Winter Journey is often a very sensitive analysis of the individual songs and the aesthetic cycle they seem to Bostridge to comprise.

It’s 24 songs of straining, near-incoherent hyper-Romantic drivel, however, so Bostridge is often obliged to digress rather dramatically, as in his discussion of Song 10, Rast, “Rest”:

What we nowadays call “classical music” has a particular set of anxieties in these days of economic transformation and capitalist crisis. The more market-driven side of our activities, the recording business, is in crisis. While technology has allowed more people than ever before to listen both to the classical music of the past and to the new music which hopes to reach out to the future, ways of “monetizing” this are in decline. People have come to expect much of their electronically reproduced music free or for a vanishingly small sum. There’s no such thing as a free market, of course, the markets in every product or service being mediated by government, regulation, custom, law, expectation, what you will.

These digressions are even more entertaining and thought-provoking than Bostridge’s discussions of the songs themselves, especially when he analyzes the rich interactions between Schubert’s imaginings and the golden age of painting unfolding in Germany at the time. During the section on Song 12, Einsamkeit (“Loneliness”), for instance, Bostridge brings in Caspar David Friedrich’s vivid 1818 painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog:

Looking at Friedrich’s paintings while thinking about Schubert helps us to understand the political and social roots of even them most determinedly metaphysical, heaven-storming art in this period. This is not to deprive Schubert’s or Friedrich’s wanderers of their aesthetic autonomy, or to deny their offer of, or even potential for, some sort of transcendence, but rather to accept that they were created in history, and not in a world set entirely apart. The desire to be alone or to retreat into oneself can have personal, psychological dimensions; pursued systematically in art or philosophy, it inevitably has roots in social and political realities.

So erudite and eloquent is Bostridge’s narration that his book may actually convince some readers to call up the “Winterreise” on YouTube or, even worse, order a CD for their personal libraries. Bostridge, ever the true believer, might even recommend such responses. As one of Schubert’s songs has it, we must try not to grow any gray hairs over it.

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