The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Schubert’s “Winterreise” is timely in so many ways, says UW singer Paul Rowe. Hear it live next Tuesday night. Part 1 of 2. | December 16, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

It seems to The Ear to be a perfectly conceived classical music event in the timing, the music, the musicians and the setting and the cause.”

There is one more week of autumn left and then, despite the blizzard last week, and then we officially start winter.

Next Tuesday is the Winter Solstice – the shortest day and longest night of the year, the turning of the year, if you will.

If you can take time out from work, home and holiday shopping, I urge you to attend this event. I expect to feel a closely bonded audience in a live performance – exactly what the best music does. I think it is a MUST-HEAR, though that sounds almost crass to say in this context.

Appropriately, the First Unitarian Society will offer distinguished UW baritone Paul Rowe, a former touring professional singer, in a Winter Solstice performance of Franz Schubert’s complete song cycle, “Winterreise” (Winter Journey).

The recital will be held in the new Atrium Auditorium, with its glass, wood and fine acoustics, of First Unitarian Society, 900 University Bay Drive, next Tuesday, Dec. 21, at 7:30 p.m. Joining Paul Rowe will be UW faculty member, collaborative pianist Martha Fischer.

“Winterreise” by Schubert (below) is perhaps the greatest song cycle ever written.  The 24 songs, set to poems by Wilhelm Müller, are a heart-rending portrayal of a winter journey filled with sadness. The songs showcase Schubert’s genius in joining tune and text into a remarkable synthesis.


Rowe and Fischer have collaborated on a number of projects including performances and recordings of Schubert’s “Winterreise” and “Die Schone Mullerin.”

A free-will donation will be collected to benefit the Second Harvest Foodbank. For more information, call 608 233-9774 or visit the FUS website: www.fusmadison.org.

Over the next two days, the performers will discuss the song cycle. Today’s posting features an e-mail with singer Paul Rowe (below in a photo by Katrin Talbot):

How do you place “Winterreise” among Schubert’s song cycles and among arts songs in general?

Winterreise is unique in many ways. Probably its most intriguing characteristic is the personal, minimal and curiously modern tone through the cycle. This is true of the poems, which are further enhanced by the music.

In some ways it is an anti-Romantic cycle which focuses on the cold, the stillness and the frozen quiet as opposed to the heat and excitement which is much more common in poetry and music from this time. It is this coldness that draws modern performers, scholars and audiences to this work.

What makes it special for you and the public and why has it become an icon or benchmark of great lieder singing?

The emotional content of this cycle and its sustained intensity combined with music of great beauty and intense feeling have made this one of the cycles that anyone interested in German song must encounter both as listener and performer.

The demands require a special attention to detail and a willingness to delve in the darker side of life that makes it a challenge and a source of endless reward for both singer and pianist who must make this journey together. (Below is the manuscript of the first song, “Good Night.”)

What is its appeal today? How is it modern in its sensibility? And how does it fit into the holiday music also going on around the winter solstice?

I chose to schedule this performance on the Winter Solstice, the shortest, darkest day of the year for several reasons.

First, it seems appropriate for the darkest of cycles to be performed in a cold climate with as little light as possible and hopefully some snow falling as well.

Second, this is a cycle that, like any great work of art, deserves to be heard often in live performance and the sense of humanity that is one of the cycles great virtues, will have meaning for everyone who participates in this performance as performer or audience member.

Third, “Winterreise” is a work of art that enables modern people to have a sense of what Schubert’s world might have been like. The pacing, necessary to the music gives us a feeling of the pace of life right at the beginning of the Industrial Age. This is in sharp contrast to the increasingly faster speed of life today. It is one of the great virtues of music and “Winterreise,” in particular, that we are given a good glimpse of the inner feelings and sensations of a German-speaking person, living in the 1820s.

Finally, the timing of the songs, the spareness of the musical and poetic language and the variety of moods have a very modern feel. This accounts for the use of Schubert’s music in movies and in other media. The film “In Bruges” featured the famous final song,
“Der Leiermann” (The Organ Grinder) in a memorable scene in a shop where one of the protagonists was buying a gun.

I have to admit that I also saw this as an anti-Christmas with all the faux merriment and commercial abuse that seems to begin earlier each year.

What would you like the public to pay attention or to hear in the cycle or in certain songs?

I would hope that the audience will fully allow the music to surround them and to be swept away by the other-worldly beauty of the cycle. This would be a good time to put away earthly things and partake of the sublime musical world that Schubert creates with his songs.

Is there anything special in your approach?

I have performed this cycle a few times in the past, always looking for a different way in to its unique world. I have sung it as a very formal affair and a few years ago with projected images with beautiful pictures by Katrin Talbot, which led to a subsequent book and recording (UW Press).

This time, I have decided to try a minimalist approach. We will be using supertitles so that the audience can follow along and so that the lights in the auditorium can be kept low. It is my hope that this will enhance to feeling of inhabiting a different universe of music and feeling far removed from the modern day hubbub.

Anything else you would like to say?

I encourage everyone to leave their watches, phones and other devices at home when coming to this concert. It would be lovely to have some slow time to share this wonderful work at this time of year.

One unusual aspect of this cycle that I have noticed, is that no matter the variety of tempos and the different length of gaps between the songs, the whole cycle always seems to take about one hour and 15 minutes.

This seems to show that Schubert had an idea about attention spans and how long a person can pay close attention at one sitting. This is also the length of time of most movies, if you take away the advertising and credits.

As always, I look forward to this collaboration with pianist Martha Fischer. It is always a great pleasure to perform with her.

Tomorrow: UW pianist Martha Fischer offers her view of “Winterreise”




Posted in Classical music

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