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Saturday, July 29, 2017

No. 14 - Der greise Kopf (047)

Next up is number 14 in the Winterreise cycle, "Der greise Kopf."

There's a marked turn in this piece. Up to this point, there's been several mentions about a hot heart, about storms, and a passionate outcry of loss. But in 14, we begin to see those fade away. Now, our Wanderer starts to contemplate death.

And yet, we're only just two songs into the second set! But starting here, Schubert makes it clear that his second set of songs will not be like the first.

So many of Schubert's previous songs follow traditional song patterns. A few verses of text, rhyming words, an overuse of repeated lines, a charming melody line, boom-chuck or arpeggiated chord for and accompaniment, and so on.

By comparison, Der greise Kopf seems highly experimental and abstract. Many of the songs in this second set push the boundaries on composition, sounding as if they belonged to an era well beyond Schubert's lifetime, maybe late-Romantic or even twentieth century (that'd be the 1900's in our proper English parlance).

Der greise Kopf is downright spooky-sounding. I call it another ghost story, most similar to No. 9, Irrlicht, which was all about will-o'-the-wisps. Both songs have a more free-form composition style. The singer sings freely through his melody with minimalist, unadorned accompaniment underneath, giving it that ghostly feeling.

But in Irrlicht, we were actually describing ghosts and the deep places that they haunt. Here, in "Der greise Kopf," the Wanderer is talking about himself.

The song starts off by describing a typical wintry scenario. As the Wanderer is walking about in the cold, a bit of ice has formed in his hair. Personally, I like to think that the young fellow has a nice, luxurious full beard, and that his breath has frozen onto it. It brings back memories of spending winters in Wisconsin.

This is the word "Reif," or "frost " at the opening of the piece. For some reason, though, I felt compelled to dig a little deeper into this word. As I suspected, there's more to the word than simply "frost."

As usual, the Germans seem to have a thousand different words for ice, and that includes frost. Typical frost is called "der Frost," and "der Reif" seems to refer to something called hoar frost. This is a specific kind of frost that accumulates in a hairy sort of pattern. "Hoar" apparently is an old English word that means "showing signs of old age."

When the Wanderer sees his new white hair, he imagines for a moment that he has become an old man. That's where we get the title: "Der greise Kopf," or "The old-man's head." The Wanderer is amused by the development. To him, it seems like a step in the right direction.

Of course, it is just ice. It melts away, showing the black hair underneath. And the Wanderer is horrified at his youth.

(I think there might be another pun here - "Graut" is the word for being horrified, but the verb "grauen" is related to the adjective grau - which means "gray." As in the color, or again, as in something that has aged.)

He laments that he is still a long way off from the grave. This line, in the dead center of the piece (pun intended), is even more stark than the rest of the song. Schubert sets the voice and piano in unison here, and it is one of only two lines that are repeated.

One cannot help but hear Schubert's voice in this line. At this point in the composition, Schubert, himself knew that his own death was imminent. Winterreise would be among the last things that he composed. The closer he got to the end of the Winterreise, the closer Schubert was getting to the grave. Schubert, himself, in the midst of his fatigue and suffering from syphilis, seems to be asking, "How much further?"

The last stanza comments on how quickly most people seem to grow old. It seems to happen in the blink of an eye - you go to bed one night with dark hair and then wake up the next and it's all white. The Wanderer laments that even though he has been journeying all this while, his hair is still black.

It's been what, all of one day so far? Again, though, consider Schubert - his own journey through illness lasted not just a day or two, but for the last few years of his life, an omnipresent reminder of his mortality. And he died young, while his hair was still dark.

This song, more so than any we've seen to this point, is deeply autobiographical, and hauntingly so.

I hope you enjoy this presentation of "Der greise Kopf!

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