Franz Peter Schubert - Life and Music


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Franz Schubert - Die Winterreise, D. 911

Music > Songs (Lieder) > Song Cycles

When the composer shared the Winterreise songs with members of his circle in 1828, they initially received a mixed reception. Josef von Spaun, the composer's friend since schooldays, recalled that 'We were quite dumbfounded by (their) gloomy mood'..though his estimation changed over time: 'More beautiful German songs probably do not exist'.

Individual songs from the cycle received sporadic public performance, the first having taken place in Vienna, but in general, the composer and his music experienced 'decades of neglect and oblivion (after) his death'.

'Winterreise' was composed in 2 parts with twelve songs each, mostly in minor keys. At his deathbed in November 1828, Schubert's last occupation was the correction of the proofs of Part II of 'Winterreise' , which was published posthumously.

It was only with the advent of recordings that an integral Winterreise could reach a mass audience, which over time affirmed its primacy. In 1928, Viennese baritone Hans Duhan recorded the complete cycle for the first time. One hundred-and-one years after its private first performance, Winterreise and its public could begin to fully discover one another.

Unlike Die schöne Müllerin, which pursues a narrative, even dramatic plot, Winterreise is introverted and interior. There are no great shifts in either mood, external circumstances or psychological state.

Through a series of recurrent images, the poet weaves a complex tapestry of images from his tragic feelings of desperation. Among these images are those of ice, snow, death, tears, anguish and journeying. Much of the organic unity of the cycle is achieved by the poet’s employment of these recurrent images.

Their cumulation builds a powerful and multi-layered impression of the protagonist’s emotional and psychological state. Although the cycle tells of the pains of unrequited love, Schubert’s protagonist is not the victim of an individual set of circumstances; he is, rather, a romantic hero set against fate itself. In Die Wetterfahne, for instance, the poet focuses upon the weather-vane as an image of the disregard shown by the external forces upon the lover’s inner torment: ‘The wind plays with the weather-vane on my fair love’s house. In my folly I thought it mocked the wretched fugitive.’ And again, ‘What do they care about my suffering?’

It is no exaggeration to say that Gute Nacht, the opening song, is emblematic of the entire cycle. The opening phrase, ‘A stranger I came, a stranger I depart’, indeed even the first word ‘Fremd’ (strange, foreign), set at the apex of the opening motif, prepares us for the extraordinary journey which is to follow. So many of the musical and poetic ideas which unfold throughout the journey are first exposed in this song. The opening motif is a descending one and, in fact, the majority of the melodies in the entire cycle are descending. The semitone, which is the very first interval of the vocal part, becomes associated later in the cycle with the evocation of death, and the piano echoes the semitone in a dotted rhythm, which is later associated with the heartbeat. Similar rhythmic figures are connected throughout the cycle with grief, fate, pain and the heart.

Josef von Spaun (1788-1865)

If the memoirs of Josef von Spaun (1788-1865) are to be trusted, Schubert corrected the proofs of the second part of Winterreise on his deathbed. Spaun left us with the following record of the first performance of Die Winterreise:

Schubert has seemed for some time moody and run down. To my questioning he replied, “You will soon understand.” One day he said, “Come to Schober’s and I will sing over a bunch of ghastly songs to you. I shall be curious,” he went on, “to hear what you think of them – they have taken more out of me than any other songs I have written.”

He then sang to us the whole Winterreise through, with much emotion in his voice. The gloom of the songs quite nonplussed us, and Schober said there was one he cared for, Der Lindenbaum. All Schubert answered was, “I like them all more than any of the other songs, and the day will come when you will like them too.” He was right; we were soon full of admiration for these mournful songs, which Vogl sang like a master.’

Feelings of remorse and rejection are trumped by thoughts of death early in the cycle, in Der Lindenbaum, and again in Irrlicht, when the dejected lover flirts with feux follets, and these thoughts grow pervasive; four of the last five songs make it their subject.

Most telling is the final three-song sequence, which Schubert reordered from the Müller original. Mut, an exercise in empty and tragic bravado, is followed by the increasing intensity of the last two songs: Die Nebensonnen, a wrenching lament of loss, and Der Leiermann, the distillation of despair.


Gute Nacht
Die Wetterfahne
Gefrorne Tränen
Der Lindenbaum
Auf dem Flusse

Die Post
Der greise Kopf
Die Krähe
Letzte Hoffnung
Im Dorfe
Der stürmische Morgen
Der Wegweiser
Das Wirtshaus
Die Nebensonnen
Der Leiermann

Listen to 'Die Winterreise' song cyclus

'Schubert has understood his poet with the kind of genius that is his own. His music is as naïve as the poet’s expression; the emotions contained in the poems are as deeply reflected in his own feelings, and these are so brought out in sound that none can sing or hear them without being touched to the heart.'

– Theaterzeitung (29 March 1828) on the publication of the first part of Winterreise

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