The Romance of Obsession in 'Schubert's Winter Journey'

by John Garratt

15 April 2015

Tenor Ian Bostridge has sung Winterreise hundreds of times and here gives it the equivalent of 33 1/3 entry -- only denser in substance, more elaborately written, and with some fascinating tangentials.
cover art

Schubert's Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession

Ian Bostridge

US: Jan 2015
UK: Dec 2014

“Obsession” is a very romantic word, isn’t it? When you are obsessed with something, you love it unconditionally while it simultaneously consumes you with probably even less prejudice. The misery of the average 19th century sap was putty in the hands of the music, art, poetry, and literature of the time. Composer Frank Schubert and poet Wilhelm Müller knew this because they were part of the hopeless demographic they sought to reach.

Winter, the year’s season of heartache, falls neatly into these romantic circles at a time when real men were brutally left alone with their thoughts. The romantic obsessions of Schubert and Müller yielded Winterreise, one of the most celebrated song cycles in classical music. And just like Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, the world of musicology has not run out of academics who wish to go through these Lieder with a fine-toothed comb. One form of obsession gives way to another as performers and listeners alike revisit the piece again and again to find out what makes it “tick”. English historian and tenor Ian Bostridge has sung Winterreise hundreds of times in his career and has decided to take a shot at giving the cycle a classical music equivalent of a 33 1/3 entry—only Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession is denser in substance, more elaborately written, and comes with some fascinating tangentials.

Schubert’s Winter Journey dissects the poetry of Winterreise more than it does the music itself. This makes sense, since Winterreise is a song cycle and Bostridge is a professional singer.

This doesn’t mean that Bostridge shortchanges the music. When Bostridge focuses on Schubert, it’s largely on what the composer was able to accomplish with poetry. The early pages of the book dwell on this, when Bostridge chases one idea of musical adaptation so far down a path that you forget if he’s talking about Schubert or Müller. The footprints on the dust jacket are probably a little more telling of the composition of this book than they were intended to be. Embossed prints in the snow appear to be headed in one direction, then seem to change their mind halfway across the surface.

There are 24 Lieder in Winterreise, and each gets it own chapter, but not all chapters are equal. In some, Bostridge gets right to the heart of the matter of this winter’s journey. In others, he’ll give you a full-on lesson on climate change, a history of turn-of-the-century German painting, how coal vs. coke for fire starts sharply reflective German politics—before briefly returning to the actual poem in question just before the chapter concludes. There were plenty of times when I was reading Schubert’s Winter Journey where I forgot that I was reading a book about classical music.

That’s the nature of art though, especially in the romantic era when music, painting, politics, depression, love, and sexually transmitted diseases couldn’t help but influence one another. All of the above revolved around Franz Schubert and his inner circle of friends to often painful degrees. Rumor has it that he didn’t finish his iconic unfinished symphony because returning to it would have reminded him of the onset of his fatal diagnosis of syphilis. When he completed Winterreise, Schubert was ill, a little depressed, had gone through his share of romantic rejections, and his music was melancholy as ever.

His ability to deflect criticism was tested when he invited his closest friends to come hear an exclusive performance of his latest batch of Lieder. Said friends were unimpressed with the winter songs. Franz von Schober, who hosted the event in his parlor, admitted to Schubert that he only cared for one out of the 24 performed. Schubert’s defense of Wintereisse stopped just short of telling his friends to get bent, but instead he insisted that in time they would love the Lieder the same way that he did. The Wintereisse song cycle consumed Schubert. It also consumed Bostridge to the point where he told the above story twice in his book, both within 30 pages of each other.

Since Bostridge goes on this winter journey via its poetry, he provides English translations for each song at the start of each chapter. And when translating form German to English, one had to address the occasional difficulties. For example in the first chapter, “Gute Nacht”, Bostridge tries to detangle the word “Fremd” before any more confusion has a chance to start. In English, it can mean “someone else’s”, “different”, “foreign”, “alien”, “strange”, “other” or “outside” (page 26) when really the one that seems to fit the narrative is “stranger”. “Estarrung”, the fourth song, is commonly translated as “numbness”, though that’s nowhere near romantic enough for the song’s purposes. Hence, it becomes known to the reader as “Frozen Stiff”, a decent crack at the protagonist who can’t find his love’s footprints, misses the green grass and alive flowers, and talks about the thawing of his heart as a question of “if”.

The vague nature of Wintereisse‘s protagonist is brought up numerous times, mostly in the form of hypothetical questions. (Who is he? Why was he thrown out of the house? Did he throw himself out?) Bostridge’s habit of doing this again and again doesn’t really clarify anything about the man, but it highlights the mysterious relationship between Schubert and poetry. One can’t blame Bostridge for spending so much time focusing on Schubert’s other adaptations of Müller’s work, like “Erlkönig” and “Gretchen am Spinnrade”, but one can blame him for confusing the narrative at times, leading the reader to wonder just which poem he was reading about.

Bostridge’s tangents get more interesting as the book rolls along, though I admit that’s a highly subjective take on the whole thing. For example, I was intrigued by the chapter on “Wasserflut” where Bostridge addresses the “controversy” of a dotted-eighth rhythm in the piano accompaniment and how it has created two factions within Schubert scholars: those who want it done by the book and those who think that the following of the book is foolhardy. The “Rast” chapter comes with a color graph of coal production in England between 1561 and 1859 (the question the author was trying to get to the bottom of is, Why does the protagonist find refuge in the house of a charcoal burner? The answer is surprisingly political). He also gives the scientific explanation of the almost-mythical-but-missed-their-chance “Will-o’-the-Wisp’s”.

At the start of the “Auf dem Flusse” chapter, Bostridge recalls the words of English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who said, upon first visiting the Apline glaciers that “flow perpetuall into the valley… performing a work of desolation in ages, which a river of lava might accomplish in an hour” (pages 172-173). Frozen water, caught in the act of flowing but temporarily still, captures another feeling of isolation for the likes of Schubert and Müller. In addition to being a reminder of winter’s harshest conditions, glistening ice can be perceived as a thing of beauty. Bostridge was thoughtful enough to include a photograph of a New Zealand glacier at the start of the chapter. It’s lovely to look at, but there’s a disturbing color line graph just seven pages later illustrating climate change (he shows that Wintereisse was composed during a “Little Ice Age”). Many striking works of art are included, giving both context and possible explanations of Schubert’s motivations: Billet Outside Paris by Anton von Werner, Orpheus and Eurydice by Christian Gottlief Kratzenstein, and The Chasseur in the Forest by Caspar David Friedrich, just to name a few.

Bostridge’s conclusion of Schubert’s Winter Journey is surprisingly diffuse, given his deep affinity for the work. He only uses five pages to impart his final message, that it’s a misguided notion to think that digging into a composer’s personal dirt somehow diminishes their work. It could be that the author used up all his mojo when writing about the final song, “The Hurdy-Gurdy Man”. The hurdy-gurdy was an instrument deemed to be below most professionals during the 19th century. It belonged to lowly troubadours who most likely smelled bad. Mendelssohn called them “dreadful”, “vulgar”, and “out-of-tune trash”. But to Bostridge, “The Hurdy-Gurdy Man” is a show-stopper—a very different kind of show-stopper. It moves him to describe crying audiences, to theorize that Bob Dylan himself must have once been touched by Schubert, to insist that the song cycle’s final number never beckons standing ovations or encores because audience and performers alike are too swept up in emotion.

Ultimately, Bostridge’s enthusiasm for Schubert’s Wintereisse is as contagious as it is confusing. However, the greatest power the book has is to move the reader to further investigate Wintereisse on their own through recordings and concerts.

Schubert's Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession


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