The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: ‘Winterreise’ expresses the bleak final year of the dying Schubert

December 23, 2010
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Editor’s note: On Tuesday night I saw and heard one of the finest and most moving performances of the entire year: Schubert’s song cycle “Winterreise” was performed at the First Unitarian Society by UW baritone Paul Rowe and UW pianist Martha Fischer, flanked only by candles, evergreen boughs on small tables and four poinsettias, was intimate and thoroughly involving.

The concert, which had a close to sold-out house of 450 or so and which raised $1,339 for the Second Harvest Food Bank, was the most memorable winter solstice I have ever spent. It drew a prolonged standing ovation (below) for good reason.

To mark the special occasion at holiday time, here is a special post that explores the larger meaning of the music by a frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker (below).

Barker is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at theUniversity of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

It was an apt idea to present Franz Schubert’s remarkable song cycle, “Winterreise” (“Winter Journey”) on December 21, marking the winter solstice and the official beginning of winter.

This was the offering of UW baritone Paul Rowe and UW pianist Martha Fischer in the new Atrium hall of the First Unitarian Society.

The two (below) are well accustomed to working together. Rowe is particularly devoted to German Lieder, and his capacity for probing expressiveness was applied handsomely to this work. Working in perfect accord, singer and pianist brought genuine feeling to their work, engaging the audience (myself included) in a totally absorbing dramatic experience.

An interesting novelty was the projection of a translation of the poetry keyed to the music, which I found engaged one’s listening more thoroughly than the usual practice of printed texts.

There is nothing else quite like the “Winterreise,” by Schubert himself or any other composer. Using a set of 24 poems by the German Romantic writer Wilhelm Müller, Schubert created a musical and emotional journey of unparalleled power. The young poet, defeated in love, must set forth on a long passage, through bleak winter landscapes, his misery and self-pity only rarely and briefly relieved, on his path to death and oblivion. It’s a perfect example of Romantic angst and youthful all-or-nothing gaming with life.

Schubert composed the cycle between February and October 1827.

What gives this austere masterpiece of art song added power is that we know that Schubert (below) wrote it while aware he was under a sentence of death. Four years earlier, he had been diagnosed with incurable syphilis, and his days were henceforth marked. But he pushed on, recurrently transcending any brooding, continuing tirelessly to compose, writing lots of pieces small and large.

In his final year he could reach new heights in the “Great” C Major Symphony (No. 9), and in his last three Piano Sonatas–those written in September, a month before his death on November 19, 1828, some two months before what would have been his 32nd birthday.

The more I listen to Schubert’s major late works, the more struck I am by the image of a still-young man struggling with the knowledge of imminent mortality.

I remember hearing, only a few weeks apart, Thomas Quasthoff singing the “Winterreise” of 1827, and players with Madison’s Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society rendering the fabulous String Quintet in C major, composed in August-September 1828. And, more recently, hearing our Ancora String Quartet present the last of Schubert’s String Quartets, the one in G major, composed in June of 1826.

As I listened to these matchless scores, especially the two chamber works, I could not avoid perceiving how Schubert, as he poured out music of melting beauty, constantly lurched into music of terror and even despair. One always has to be careful, of course, about inferring too much autobiography in a composer’s music. But in those works, it has seemed to me impossible not to hear Schubert’s secret emotions bursting forth.

Such expression was, in a way, paradoxical, because Schubert was an amiable, genial, very sociable person, who loved to gather with friends down to the end of his days (below, at the piano). I know we often think of great composers we would like to have met and had a talk with. Some, many even, would have been formidable. But Schubert would have topped my personal list of choices, for I know that he quickly would have become my friend.

Many years ago, on a visit to Vienna, I sought out many of the numerous places in the city identified with its great composers. In a run-down apartment building, then inhabited mostly by refugees from Yugoslavia, there was a flat that had been occupied by Schubert’s brother, Ferdinand.

It had current residents, but one room was reserved for visitors. It was the room where Schubert died (below, apparently restored and renovated). Stiflingly small, bereft of any decoration, its walls stripped down to bare plaster, in its nakedness it screamed out, the more blatantly, the terrible loss we suffered in Schubert’s premature death in its shabby confines.

I wanted to weep, and I had to flee. For what departed from us in that tragic chamber was not only one of our greatest musical geniuses, but a friend, one who can still cry out to us and turn his anguish into a timeless expression of human pain and fragility.



Posted in Classical music

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