They have cost me more effort than any of my other songs.
–Schubert on Winterreise
This statement gains greater poignancy when source and context are considered. Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) composed over 600 songs, and often (purportedly) with great alacrity. The 24 poems that make up Schubert’s Winterreise were published in three separate iterations by Wilhelm Müller (1794 – 1827): first as a set of twelve poems in 1822 (ending with Einsamkeit), then twenty-two in 1823, and finally in its ultimate form (with Die Post and Täuschung) in 1824. It seems that Schubert came across the poems in their first version – initially setting the twelve poems to music – before completing the entire cycle of twenty-four poems in the year before his death, 1827.
These poems have been criticised for their absence of a defined plot; Müller’s loose scheme further destabilised by the lack of a trackable sense of time and space. The poems mix past and present, and the entire journey is shrouded in the monochromatic, unrelenting white of winter. Our protagonist is journeying when we meet him and he journeys still when we part ways, effectively nullifying the movement of journeying itself. Instead, this voyage is an inner one, our protagonist winding his way further and further into a claustrophobic world which he cannot affect.
Schubert’s masterful renderings of these poems respect the simple and direct quality that lie at the heart of the folk poetry Müller so honoured. There is little self-referencing across the songs themselves and the tonal blueprint of the cycle is one that is better understood from a distance, rather than linked by a song-by-song pathway. There is no perceivable audience present in either the protagonist’s melodic musings, or in the mirrored piano preludes and postludes that bookend them. Nevertheless, this quest contains a force that grows from the quiet of its inevitability, its commonness sharpened by its keenness.
Though the act of reading biography into art can be misleading, this Reise famously contains glints that reflect Schubert’s own. Suffering from the venereal disease (and remedies) that would end his short life, Schubert also looked out on the edges of his own mortality. His ‘effort’ weighed down by the double-edged horizon where both life and suffering cease. “…I may well sing every day now, for each night, on retiring to bed, I hope I may not wake again, and each morning but recalls yesterday’s grief” (Youens, Retracing a Winter’s Journey, p. 25).
Friday, February 2nd @ 8 p.m.
150 W. 83rd Street (W83 Ministry Center)
Tickets at door (cash only, please): suggested $20
All proceeds go to International Justice Mission
Sung Chung, baritone
Suna Chung, piano
all proceeds go to International Justice Mission