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Length: 60 minutes
The notion of genius spurned, misunderstood, condemned is a favorite Romantic cliché, one that dies hard even in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary. Cases in point: the many biographies and music-appreciation sketches devoted to Franz Schubert.
Schubert was neither unknown, despised, nor unremunerated during his lifetime. What ended his life in 1828 wasn't disillusionment, but syphilis, which he had contracted as early as 1822. His health was further undermined by overwork, bad eating habits, excessive drinking, and other manifestations of lack of concern for his personal well-being. There were, to be sure, professional setbacks and rebuffs, and an inability to manage his finances is easily corroborated, particularly during his last, hugely productive year. But it is worth noting, too, that in his final months the composer was attended by several eminent medical men, including Ernst Rinna von Sarenbach, physician to the Imperial Court - which surely says something about Schubert's standing in the community.
It was after his lifetime that the neglect set in, and lasted for a half-century, despite the efforts of no less a champion than Robert Schumann. "Gone and forgotten" was a musical truism of Schubert's time, when the cult of the new reigned - above all in fickle Vienna.
Other elements in the Legend of Franz Schubert include the persistent popular belief (once the world had rediscovered him) that his inspirations could reach their final form - that is, without corrections - on menus, napkins, and tablecloths. He was prolific. He worked fast and whenever and wherever inspiration struck. But Schubert was also a craftsman and could be a refiner, as substantiated by the thoroughgoing study of his manuscripts that has taken place since the end of World War II.
False, too, as we have been shown in relatively recent times, is the notion that Schubert heard hardly any of his mature works performed and that he was killed, prematurely, by "his privations, his absolute poverty, and the distress he naturally felt at finding that no exertions could improve his circumstances" (Sir George Grove, of Dictionary fame). None of which is to say that Schubert had an easy time of it, for reasons previously alluded to, and, importantly, for his refusal to speak ill of those in Vienna against whom he was competing for employment, and who might have spoken ill of him.
During the first months of 1827, Schubert was 30 years old, with less than two years remaining of his life. It was then that he began to compose Winterreise, 24 songs to poems of Wilhelm Müller, who had provided the texts for the composer's earlier song cycle, Die schöne Müllerin (1823). Schubert found the first 12 Winterreise poems in Urania, an anthology of new German-language poetry.
Müller was an almost exact and equally short-lived contemporary of Schubert. The two seemingly never met, although it is possible that the poet knew of the Müllerin settings. He died just as Schubert was beginning work on Winterreise.
A native of Dessau, in Saxony, Müller was a philologist and classical scholar, and a skilled versifier who eventually joined a circle of Berlin-based literati that also included Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim, compilers of the influential folk anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn - which in fact inspired Müller's own folk-like style.
The darkness of Winterreise notwithstanding, Schubert had reason to be optimistic about his future in 1827. He was being published, if not lavishly. His songs and piano dances were being performed - and being well-received - not only in Vienna, but as far away as Frankfurt, Munich, Leipzig, and Berlin.
As noted, work on the first half of Winterreise - the composer had not seen the remaining 12 poems when he began the cycle - took place during the first two months of 1827. It wasn't until after its completion that he read the entire Müller opus, so his efforts didn't recommence until autumn of the same year. Between the two "books," as they are sometimes called, Schubert composed a number of other superb songs, including Das Lied im Grünen and the two exquisite settings for alto solo and small chorus of Grillparzer's Ständchen. Also, he was elected to Vienna's most exclusive musical society, the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde.
The following account of the first performance of Book I of Winterreise and events leading up to it came from Joseph von Spaun, a friend of the composer since childhood:
"… Schubert's mood became more gloomy, and he seemed upset. When I asked him what the matter was, he merely said, 'You will soon hear and understand. Come to Schober's [Franz von Schober, another charter member of the Schubert circle] and I will sing a cycle of awe-inspiring songs. I am anxious for your opinion of them, for they have affected me more than any of my earlier songs.' So, in a voice wrought with emotion, he sang the whole of Winterreise [in fact, the first 12 songs] to us, accompanying himself on the piano. We were quite dumbfounded by the black mood of the songs, and Schober said he liked only one, 'Der Lindenbaum.' To which Schubert said, 'Wait. You will learn to appreciate them.' He was right. Soon we were enthusiastic over the profound effect of these melancholy songs, which Vogl performed in a masterly way."
Aside from Spaun's and Schober's seeming impatience with the songs' prevailing darkness - excepting the folk-like "Lindenbaum" - they might, too, have been put off by Schubert's reported "composer's singing voice." When the songs were sung for the company in January of the next year by Johann Michael Vogl, a professional singer and the composer's favored interpreter, they made quite a different impression, as Spaun noted.
Winterreise, 16 of whose songs are in minor keys, depicts the emotions of a lovelorn wanderer against a bleak, wintry landscape. The cycle is, in the words of Schubert authority Richard Capell, "70 pages of lamentation on lamentation… whose interest lies in depth of feeling rather than psychological refinement. The cycle is a succession of states of emotion… but avoiding sentimentality. Neither the miller [of Die schöne Müllerin] nor the wanderer is a sentimentalist. They do not compose their states of emotion, but directly face, all unprepared, the blasts of the different and surprising hours of life."
Among the many marvels of Winterreise is that the composer, with not a little help from Müller, whose verses might have been created for Schubert's music, is able to project such intense drama without employing to any marked degree that seemingly inherent and vital sustaining element of drama: conflict. It isn't there in Müller, and it's not there in Schubert. The cycle is about one solitary, unhappy person not so much fighting as submitting to fate - with only the feeblest glimmerings of hope during the course of his wintry trudge. For example, in "Frühlingstraum" and "Die Post," where a bit of wan, major-key light is allowed to seep in, it is quickly extinguished: illusory hope, plunging the wanderer into even deeper misery by the precipitate return to grim, minor-key reality. The ultimate irony is achieved in "Täuschung," whose jaunty 6/8 rhythm is in cruelest contrast to the bitterness of the lyrics.
It isn't difficult to see the narrator-victim of Winterreise as the jilted apprentice of Die schöne Müllerin grown older but no wiser - and jilted again. "Gute Nacht," the opening song of the later cycle, mirrors his dark emotions, and with the words "Das Mädchen spricht von Liebe" there is a fleeting recollection of better times. Hope is quickly dashed by the return of the original minor in the postlude, the piano re-establishing the bleak mood and weary pace.
One of the striking differences between Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin is the shifting in the later work of the piano's function. In the 1823 cycle, it is brilliantly decorative, embellishing the text. In the later work the piano becomes the interpreter of the singer's words and the singer's equal in both emotional and musical importance, a direction German song-writing took from that time forward.
There are times, too, when the piano has the upper hand, becoming the protagonist (with the voice accompanying, so to speak), as in the horrific final song, "Der Leiermann," wherein the wanderer, utterly spent, all hope gone, compares himself - in virtual monotone - to the miserable organ-grinder, barefoot on the ice, dogs snarling at his feet, playing his repetitious song to which no one listens.
The first 12 songs of Winterreise were published early in 1828. In November, on his deathbed, Schubert corrected proofs of the second part, which was published posthumously the following January.
Schubert lived nearly a year after completing the cycle. And that year's incredible productivity should serve as the ultimate reproach to those who continue to see him as that impotent wanderer, the organ-grinder, life's and love's eternal loser and pawn. In the time remaining to him, Schubert created some of his grandest music: the Mass in E-flat, the Piano Trio in the same key, the String Quintet, the Lebensstürme for piano four-hands, the sublime Piano Sonatas in C minor, in A, and in B-flat, and the songs collected after his death as Schwanengesang.
-- Herbert Glass, a former critic-columnist for the Los Angeles Times, is English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival. He also contributes to several periodicals in the U.S. and Europe.