New program notes for Winterreise

At what age should a singer perform Winterreise? Conventional wisdom casts the performer as an older man. Indeed, the lyrics and music explore despair and death, tracing the emotional path of a dejected traveler making his way through the wilderness – a solitary Winter Journey. Although they might not have known it, both Franz Schubert and the poet Wilhelm Müller were near the end of their own lives when they wrote the material for the cycle. Müller, whose 1824 Poems from the posthumous papers of a travelling horn-player served as the lyric source for Franz Schubert, died in 1827, the same year in which Schubert completed the cycle. The following year saw both the publication of the cycle and Schubert’s own grisly death at the age of thirty-one.

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Given the association of Winterreise with the demise of these Romantic figureheads, and taking into account its poetic material, it would appear that an interpreter of these songs should approach them with an understanding of mortality. For this reason, age has, for many years, been an unofficial prerequisite for performers of the cycle. In addition, convention has assigned the cycle to men, with far more recordings of the work by baritones and tenors in comparison to their female counterparts.

The first time I performed Winterreise, I was not yet thirty years old. I was lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to sing the cycle in Los Angeles just after my twenty-ninth birthday. I found it to be a fit for me, vocally and emotionally. “But aren’t you a little young to be performing this?” I was asked on more than one occasion. My half-baked response amounted to comparing my age to Schubert’s age when he wrote the cycle. I would also cite a line in the fourteenth song, “Der greise Kopf,” in which the protagonist laments the fact that his jet-black hair is not yet grey with age. My paltry reasoning did not seem to elicit a challenge.

Nonetheless, it is now, several years later that I am more fully aware of why Winterreise speaks to me. It is because of the cycle’s dual focus on nature and mortality. Müller’s poetry pays close attention to the natural world and then seeks to draw comparisons between environmental phenomena and human emotions. The torrent of water under a thickly frozen stream is equated to the fiercely beating heart of the unrequited lover. The brutal stormy gales are representations of anger and adversity in the narrator’s life. And, calmness is an indication of resignation to sadness and death. Schubert’s music underscores the natural images, most notably with the deep searching bass line of “Auf dem Fluße,” the severe blustering passages of “Erstarrung,” “Rückblick,” “Der stürmische Morgen,” and “Mut,” and the solemn measured quietude of “Wasserflut,” “Irrlicht,” “Rast,” and “Wirtshaus,” and “Die Nebensonnen.”

Winterreise reaches its emotional climax in the sixteenth song, “Letzte Hoffnung.” At this point, the narrator stares upwards at the last leaf remaining on a tree. He equates all his hope to this one leaf, and proclaims that if this leaf falls, then all his hope will vanish into the grave. Of course, this leaf, like all leaves, falls. Although Müller casts the leaf as a metaphor for hope, Schubert takes a step further. His falling and off-kilter piano part explores a diminished chord before landing on the dominant. This dominant fails to resolve to the tonic, which sets a pattern for the song in which tonic is eluded and delayed until the final expansive “wein auf meiner Hoffnung Grab,” (“I cry at my hope’s grave”) arguably the most lyrical phrase in the cycle. For Schubert, it is not only hope that dies at this moment. The leaf is a symbol for the composer’s own mortality, with death arriving in a major key - a sweet relief to the suffering of the journey.

During the past three years on December 21, I have performed Winterreise outdoors in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden for Make Music New York. The adaptation is entitled Winterize, and attracts a large and diverse audience. The audience members hold transistor radios that play the accompaniment (performed by my husband Timothy Long), which has been soundscaped (by the composer and sound designer Jonathan Zalben). The event becomes a tour through the Garden, and the fact that the audience literally holds the accompaniment makes the performance a collaborative experience for all involved. The weather for the three performances (December 21 in 2012, 2013 and 2014) varied wildly. In 2012, the air was wet and windy, and the temperature was well below freezing. In 2013, temperatures soared into the 60s. Hats and gloves came off and jackets were opened. In 2014, the thermometer read 30 degrees, but it felt much colder.

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Performing outdoors and allowing the elements to alter the quality of the event helped to highlight the content of Winterreise for all involved. During the two performances with frigid temperatures, the audience experienced a chill that was underlined by Schubert’s music. One reviewer even remarked that, “you have not truly experienced Winterreise until you have stood three or four feet from the singer, his breath visible in the cold.”

For the warm year’s performance, a different idea came to the forefront: although a single day three years in a row can hardly be considered as a litmus test for environmental alterations, the change in temperatures on the winter solstice was a reminder of the variations in weather. It also suggested the presence of climate change and our own impending mortality.

By singing Winterreise outdoors and then bringing it back inside, I have learned to mix the archetypal cycle with a more contemporary telling. The prototypical Winterreise describes a solitary forest at the dawn of the industrial revolution; a lone man confronts nature and ages significantly through the process. Today’s Winterreise must be told with Schubert’s early nineteenth-century world in mind. At the same time, it requires attention to our current winter: erratic and unpredictable, underlining our own fate. In this context, specific age is eclipsed by universal mortality – an experience shared by all.

- © Christopher Dylan Herbert, 2015