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

Sunday, November 6, 2016

First Impressions - Text

Okay, now that we've talked about music, let's talk about the text in Winterreise. I'll get into the specifics of each song as we go, but I did want to get a general, unedited idea of what is going on in this poetry.

The text is by the poet Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827), who ironically lived almost the exact same too-short life-span as Schubert himself (1797-1828). I found a pretty good translation by Celia Sgroi, and read it start to finish. Here's what I found.

Bam! Right off the bat we find out that the story actually already happened, and that Winterreise is entirely a telling of aftermath. The story that people usually want to hear - two lovers falling in love, having their trials and tribulations along the way, well, all that fun stuff already happened, and right in the first piece "Gute Nacht," the poor fellow is leaving the house of his beloved, never to return. Sometimes it seems like the guy is a little on the emo side of things (is "emo" still a word? I think I'm a little behind on my high school fads), but there are a few keys that this was a pretty significant relationship. My guess is that he had actually been engaged to the girl -- he claims that her parents were talking marriage and later on there is a reference to a broken ring. So we're not just talking hormone-induced teenager angst; it's a little deeper than that.

Anyway, he takes off on his journey and gives us a commentary along the way. He plays the part of an observer for the most part, bemoaning how one thing or another reminds him of how bad he's got it. The triggers are different, though. They seem to rotate between the natural (aka. the Romantic) features of the landscape (rivers, trees, weather, crows), the unnatural (will o' wisps and other spooks), and parts of civilization which should be rather mundane but instead just goad him.

There's at least a couple dream sequence moments where we get a bit of a snapshot of what life was like before the journey began. One of them is near the beginning, and another is as he's resting a spell in a cabin. Another quirky thing - it seems this guy is a serial graffiti artist. He keeps scribbling on things! Door posts, iced over rivers, trees, you name it.

Possibly the coolest part, though is that this piece does not rely upon destination as the key point in keeping our attention. As we travel with the guy, we aren't holding our breath to find out where he winds up. That part is pretty plain, right from the beginning - he's going out there to freeze to death. That's the only way it's going to end. Instead, it's the actual journey that keeps us listening. And it's not a mere journey in the sense of going from one place to another. Instead, it's about how this or that observation makes him feel, a journey of emotions.

So that's my first impression of the text. I know I've gotten some bits wrong, and that there's a lot more detail yet to come, but that will come as I dig into each piece, one by one.

Have you had any encounters with Romantic German poetry? What was that encounter like? Share your memories by adding your comments.

Next up - some background on the piece.

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