Welcome to the official Singerreise webpage! Join in the discussion as we talk about the life of an opera singer, and as we learn about Schubert's masterpiece Winterreise.

Entertain, Educate, Encourage

Monday, November 7, 2016

First impressions - Background

This is the third article in a series of first impressions. Check out my remarks about music and text, too!

To put Winterreise into a context, I'm going to use two resources for now, and add more as I go. The first is the one everyone goes to first - Wikipedia - and the second, a published book on the subject.

From Wikipedia, the part I was most interested in was the composition background of the piece. It turns out that Wilhelm Müller had a relationship to Carl Maria von Weber, and that these poems were in part dedicated to the memory of that "horn-player". Moreover, I was not aware that the pieces were composed in two separate volumes of twelve songs each, with pieces 1-12 being published first, and 13-24 second. Performance-wise, that would lend itself to having an intermission between 12 and 13... but we're going to do otherwise on January 29th. Also, the order of the pieces is not quite as definitive as we're all led to believe.

I was embarrassed to be reminded that Wilhelm Müller was also the poet of Schubert's other song cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin. As we go, I'm sure I'll find out more about him.

There were a few things which I did remember, but are worth repeating: Schubert died of syphilis at a relatively young age, and Winterreise was written in the latter part of his (all-too-short) life. Part of the gloomy nature of the piece can be attributed to the composer's own gloomy mood, knowing that he wasn't going to last much longer.

Also, it is hard to understate how monumental this piece is. Of art song, it is perhaps one of the most often performed and most often recorded works attempted, even though it is nearly 70 minutes of music. Even then, people still come out in droves to see it. In history, it is one of the chief examples of its kind, not only of Lieder (German art song), but of the "song cycle" itself -- series of pieces intentionally put together by the composer to be sung in order, telling a story.

Then there's the matter of what key it is in. It was written for a high voice, but Schubert himself was very loose with his transpositions. I was particularly delighted to see that some nerdy fellow in Wikipedia went through and made a similar spreadsheet to the one I had made, comparing the different voiced editions to the original keys.

So that's Wikipedia. However, I wanted to get a better sense of the piece and its context, so I picked up a book titled Retracing a Winter's Journey: Franz Schubert's Winterreise, by Susan Youens, to get a feel of what contemporary scholarship is writing on the subject. Well, that's a sizable volume, so I've only gotten through the preface, and my first impression there is that apparently, the poet has come under fire several times for being only mediocre. The author contends that Müller was not, mentioning briefly in the preface that he was well-respected in his own time, but I expect this author will illuminate what the gripes are with him and why those gripes are unfounded. I also hope to use this book to dig deeper into the poetry of the individual pieces than I can on my own, having lived a different lifestyle, time, and place than the early 19th century Romantics in their German parlors.

I think part of the purpose of this blog is to show how little I actually know about the piece, and to lay the groundwork for discovery later. Leave your comments about my ignorance below, but know that as the weeks go by, I will be learning. And, hopefully, you get to learn with me.

What are you initial impressions of Winterreise? Got any books to recommend? Let us know in the comments below.


  1. Another possible reference that I saw in Third Place Books (Ravenna) just a couple of days ago: "Schubert’s Winter Journey" by Ian Bostridge. Here's a review from the NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/19/books/review-schuberts-winter-journey-allows-ian-bostridge-to-obsess.html

    1. Thanks Aaron! I was aware of the book. Ian Bostridge has performed the work many, many times, and this book is already on my hit list. Thanks for mentioning it, though!