Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession

  • By Ian Bostridge
  • Alfred A. Knopf
  • 528 pp.
  • Reviewed by Benjamin M. Korstvedt
  • May 24, 2015

A leading British classical tenor sets out to explore one of the most moving musical works of the 19th century.

Winter Journey, or Winterreise, as it is usually called even in English, is a cycle of 24 songs for solo voice and piano based on poems by the German poet Wilhelm Müller, and set to music by the great Austrian composer Franz Schubert in 1827, less than a year before the end of his tragically short life. The songs bring to life a series of solitary and often grimly expressive scenes from a wanderer’s forlorn journey through a wintry world as he flees some unknown heartbreak.

This book is, as its subtitle suggests, the fruit of “three decades of obsessing about Winterreise.” Bostridge indeed has a long attachment to Winterreise, going back to his school days and extending through 30 years of performing it internationally “around a hundred times.”

This long fascination is not as surprising as it may seem. Schubert’s music has the power to excite remarkably intense personal devotion; many musicians, professional and amateur, hold Schubert, of all the great composers, in a special, deeply subjective affection. The composer’s life story, with its fantastic musical gifts, bohemian purity, and tragically early decline and death, inspires true sympathy, even as the man himself remains ungraspable.

His music manages to speak with an uncanny intimacy while somehow staying slightly aloof, never lapsing into sentimentality. And many of us recognize in it a surprisingly modern sensibility in which, for the first time in music history, pleasure and disenchantment exist side by side, free from the illusion that they can finally be reconciled.  

The book is structured simply. Following a brief introduction, Bostridge offers 24 chapters, one for each song, before concluding with a four-page “Aftermath.” Each chapter opens with the song’s German text together with the author’s own English translation and continues by discussing Bostridge’s thoughts on the song’s meaning, its biographical aspects, historical resonance, and/or musical character.

Although this design precludes the creation of a strong narrative line, it enables Bostridge to draw a remarkably wide range of connections to and from these songs. Parallels between Schubert’s wanderer and the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, which Bostridge ponders at some length, are quite irresistible, yet commonplace.

The attention Bostridge pays to “Winterreise’s role as a secret, coded lament for the reactionary climate at large in Germany and Austria in the 1820s” helpfully connects the music to its original context while it illuminates its expressive edge.

Other comments walk a fine line between historical relevance and clever flair, including those on the lore and legend of hair turning white overnight, the replacement of charcoal by coal in 19th-century Britain, the mechanism by which leaves fall from trees in autumn, the cultural history of letters, climate change, and the metaphoric role of tears as a substitute for “a more carnally imagined exchange of body fluids.”  

Bostridge also relates Winterreise to diverse literary topics, including passing references to Proust and Blake, several comments on Samuel Beckett’s affiliation to these songs and their fragmentary flashes of existential irony, and, of course, to Thomas’s Mann’s masterwork, The Magic Mountain, which culminates in a tragic and portentous scene in which the protagonist dies with one on the songs from the cycle, “Der Lindenbaum” (“The Linden Tree”), on his lips.

Here Bostridge succeeds by proposing a covert affinity between a pivotal chapter earlier in The Magic Mountain, a hallucinatory narrative entitled “Snow,” and Winterreise, an idea I found both convincing and illuminating.

Also distinctive and novel are the author’s attempts to connect the despair expressed in Winterreise to the corrosive force of capitalism on Schubert — who was “the first of the canonically ‘great’ composers to have made his living solely in the marketplace,” and hence lived in a state of perilous insecurity — as well as on musical life today in the cultural valley carved by the financial collapse of 2008.  

As a talented singer who has sung Winterreise scores of times to great acclaim and who holds a doctorate in history from Oxford, no less, Bostridge is well positioned to undertake this book. A number of times, he draws on his remarkable familiarity with this work to explain some points of performance interpretation.

There is one unexpected limiting factor, however. He declares, with what feels like a hint of quixotic pride, that he “is not a trained musician” and has “never studied music at university or music college.” This is not necessarily a grave hindrance to his project; sustained technical analysis of music would, surely, be out of place here. Yet only rarely, for me at least, does this book do what all truly worthwhile writing about music must do: spark an irresistible urge to return to the music to experience something new and meaningful made audible with the help of the author’s words.

Physically, the book is an oddity, a small but thick octavo, printed on glossy paper throughout, and hence notably heavy, almost exactly a kilogram (2.2 pounds). This makes it less than easy to read between the pull of gravity and frequent page turning.

Bostridge writes in a distinctly British voice, somewhat verbose at times, but only rarely stilted (as in an appeal to “my gentle reader” or a reference to Schubert’s “bolshie” tendencies as a young man). The book contains a number of brightly reproduced images and boasts a broad and surprisingly deep bibliography. But the complete lack of footnotes or other form of citation frustrates any wish to dig deeper along the lines Bostridge explores. (Why do commercial publishers insistently eschew footnotes, surely a most generous textual element?)

Those who love Schubert’s magnificent song cycle will naturally want to read the book. I did. Yet I have to admit that it left me slightly disappointed. The fulsome praise heaped upon this book by the press, especially in Britain (which is grandly sampled by the publisher’s website), suggests that others felt differently.

The personal, essayistic mode that Bostridge employs is what gives the book its distinctive character, yet its success is dependent on the reader’s willingness to follow his forays with interest. For me, while many of the author’s meditations on Winterreise proved informative, indeed illuminating at times, some remained more idiosyncratic than apt.

As much as I appreciate Bostridge’s ambitious goal of grasping what Winterreise “might mean for us now, as a message in a bottle set afloat in the cultural ocean in 1828,” his efforts are limited by his hesitance to address the interpretive issues involved in ascribing historical, cultural, and biographical meaning to a musical work written nearly 200 years ago.

He ends the book by declaring his efforts as “no more than a small part of a continuing exploration of the complex and beautiful web of meanings — musical and literary, textual and metatextual — within which Winter Journey works its spell.” This seems to me to be a remarkably fair appraisal of the volume’s value and achievement.

Benjamin M. Korstvedt is the George N. and Selma U. Jeppson Professor of Music at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. He has written extensively about the symphonies of Anton Bruckner and edited the Fourth Symphony for the collected works edition. He has also written about Haydn, Schubert, music in fin-de-siècle Vienna, and musical scholarship in the Third Reich.

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