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Friday, December 2, 2016

#4 - Erstarrung (010)

And number four is complete! This means we are 1/6 the way through Winterreise! … Clearly we have a long way to go yet.

The title for this piece is "Erstarrung." According to my line by line translation, it supposedly means "numbness," but I will admit this does not make sense to me.
If it were about numbness, we'd have a sort of dulling effect throughout the piece, but to me it feels filled with more worry and desperation. It's also worth noting that Müller did not give any of his poems titles, so the title is from Schubert. Given Schubert's own setting of the text, "numbness" is probably not what we're going for here, so let's dig into the text and music and see if a better translation can be found.

I won't repeat all five stanzas of the text here, so here's just the gist of it. There's snow all around, and the Wanderer gets on his knees and starts digging around. There might be a leftover footprint from when he and his lover walked that path together. Since you can't take a snowprint with you, he's hoping some of his hot tears (in the last song, they were gefrorne !) will melt the snow away and help him see the ground. He's looking for some flower or bit of grass that he can take, a sort of physical memento of his lost love, but everything's already dead.

Having no memento stresses him out. This time around, he claims his heart is "like dead" and frozen solid (we seem to be having a hard time being consistent with which pieces of anatomy are or are not frozen…), and that inside the heart is the last remaining image of his beloved. If spring comes, the heart will thaw and that image will be lost (ergo the need for a bit of grass to stuff in his trousers).

Throughout the entire piece, there is a supremely nasty piano part, loaded with fast triplets and undulating, sometimes in both hands. There's a ton of counter-melodies too, as if the Winter is saying, "not goin' t' happen!" whenever the Wanderer is trying desperately to find even a single flower.

There's too much animation, too much agitation for this piece to be titled "Numbness." So I went to my trusty language sidekicks - the language dictionary and Bing. This time, the language dictionary had nothing for me. Bing, however, offered two other options: "Solidification" and "Rigidity."
Okay - that's starting to make sense! We're talking about the heart - how the Winter has frozen it and within it rests the last remaining memory of his love. (I bet we'll find there's other memories, though). It is crystalizing throughout the piece, and that is a good/bad thing. It's what Schubert seems to think is the main point of conflict.

My last note on this piece it that it is devilishly hard. There's a lot of text, but that text flies by fast! The piano part is just as bad. My wife complains that her small hands had a lot of trouble with the voicing of the arpeggios. We rehearsed and recorded it with care, making sure to take breaks in between runs. It's a minor miracle that we got to the end in one take without any major crashes, especially on the compressed Singerreise schedule that we're keeping.

So enjoy the music, and let me know what you think!


  1. Thanks for another informative blog entry, and for taking us all along on this Reise with you!

    A couple of things that can help with translating German:

    1. There is a very good online German to English dictionary, Beolingus, at http://dict.tu-chemnitz.de/ . One nice thing about it is that it gives both English translation words and German words with similar meanings.

    In general, I find translation services such as Bing more useful when I don't understand a full phrase and want a general sense of the meaning, but dictionaries more useful when I don't understand a particular word and want to dig deeper into it.

    2. German words ending in "ung" are often noun abstractions of verbs ("Erstarrung" comes from "erstarren"), so it may make sense to look up the verb that it comes from rather than the noun abstraction itself, especially when the verb is in more common use than the abstract noun. This holds for some other types of endings/abstractions too (such as "-keit").

    In this case, looking up "erstarren" in that online dictionary, it includes meanings such as "to freeze" and "to grow stiff". (It has fewer enties under "Erstarrung" but gives as the first entry "solidification, setting, freezing".)

    1. ps You can take Item 2 above one step further too: the "er" prefix is often used to make a verb that refers to the process of putting something in a state. In this case the state would be "starr", one meaning of which is "stiff". In this sense, "erstarren" means "to become stiff" or "to stiffen". If that stiffening happens to come from freezing, then maybe a good translation would be "to freeze solid".

      I find that often this process of taking apart a word is helpful for gaining a fuller sense its meaning.

  2. Thanks for the comments!

    The main point of this introduction/analysis was to demonstrate the process that I use in the Writing a Translation series a couple weeks back. By digging deeper into a word and not taking the translation at face value, I found something that made a lot more sense and avoided a very wrong, fundamental error in my interpretation. I'm stressing it because there are so many singers who would take shortcuts.

    Understandably so, of course. There's always a ton of music to learn, rehearsals to be at, emails, teaching, networking, and so on. We're a busy people, and this stuff takes time. Sometimes it just feels like we're taking apart words just the heck of it. But, here, if I had tried to force a feeling of "Numbness" onto the piece, the song have been *performed* completely wrong. For our purposes here, it all comes back to our singing. So sometimes digging must be done.

    Another reader pointed out by email that the key line in the piece was:
    "Mein Herz ist wie erstorben, kalt STARRT ihr Bild darin"
    which the line-by-line translation had as:
    "My heart is as if dead, her image frozen cold within."

    As soon as I started digging, I came up with this:
    "My heart is like dead, frozen solid her image within."

    And of course the connection between "starrt" and "Erstarrung" became obvious. The observation didn't make it into the post above. Deadlines and whatnot.

    I couldn't find it in my dictionary, of course, because I had forgotten about "er" being a prefix, and, naturally, my book has words alphabetically.

    Thanks for posting that link! I've already added it to my resources page.