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Winterreise D911
 Composed by Schubert, Franz
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Die Winterreise - A Note by the Performers

When we started to work together nearly ten years ago, we began to explore the very wide repertoire of piano-accompanied song. Some sorts of songs were more difficult than other, we duly did battle with serially composed song-cycles, baroquely florid Handel arias, and lugubriously intense Wolf songs. For light relief we'd turn to some nice easy straightforward songs like – Schubert? The angels superintending our folly in this matter held up outraged hands and told us of the special difficulties attending the proper interpretation of anything so deceptively simple. Like the man who's been told that it couldn't be done, with a smile we went straight to it. We tackled the thing that couldn't be done, and spent the next six years in increasing dissatisfaction as our interpretative efforts tended ever to the ingenious rather than the ingenuous. In the end we gave Schubert up, and turned from his difficult easy music to easy difficult music like Strauss and early Schoenberg.

We realised that our most successful and personally satisfying performances were of music without an established performing tradition; where we had to think for ourselves we at last arrived at a consistent view of a piece. But in Poulenc, for example, we were presented with Bernac's way which we had either to accept or reject. If we accepted it, our problem was that one of us was not Bernac, while the other was certainly not Poulenc, if we rejected it, our problem was that everyone assumed we hadn't read the book, and automatically despised us. But in this rather over simplified example we found that confidence in ourselves eventually led to a performance perhaps more in the Bernac spirit than if we had merely followed his instructions.

But with Schubert there were so many opinions to weight, to accept, or reject. In every bar of some songs one might be 'doing' something, or worse, consciously 'not doing' something. No single pendant, of course, suggested all the interpretative points, so there was no pretence that they could all find a place in a coherent scheme.

We tried an approach of cheerful iconoclasm, choosing for preference little-known songs and playing even well-known ones as if we'd never heard them before and couldn't wait to see what happened next. It sounded a bit like that, unfortunately, and here we stuck until we received an invitation to perform some Schubert songs in a Huntingdon rectory on a square piano. It was revelation. Even well-known ones were as if we'd never heard them before – we couldn't wait to see what happened next. The beautiful translucent but by no means evanescent sounds from the piano made much of what we'd been taught quite irrelevant. 'Corners' disappeared – ritardandi would have been frustrating. Special emphases sounded as absurd as banging the table with your shoe in the Ritz. Eureka!

So the better-paid half of us bought the piano and the other half of us started to practice it. In our subsequent perambulations through the repertoire, Winterreise claimed out attention. We felt that, inoculated now by the fortepiano, we could with safety dip once more into the editions, and we found, surprisingly, that while everyone was agreed that this was Schubert's masterpiece everyone further agreed that it was an unsatisfactory work, mainly because of its lack of emotional contrast. The story, we read, deals with a young man rejected by his false mistress and wanders glumly through the snow, getting sadder and sadder, and madder and madder until, funking suicide, and after a quite unexplained flash of angry courage, he walks off into the sunset with an organ grinder.

So we investigated Winterreise in a rather more scholarly way. Müller published the first twelve poems in 1823. Later that year he published ten more in a periodical and in the collected edition of 1824 he added two more, making twenty-four. The final order in which he published them was this

Gute Nacht; Die Wetterfahne; Gefror'ne Tränen; Erstarrung; Der Linderbaum; Die Post; Wasserflut; Auf dem Flusse; Rückblick; Der greise Kopf; Die Krähe; Letzte Hoffnung; Im Dorfe; Der stürmische Morgen; Taüschung; Der Wegweiser; Das Wirtshaus; Irrlicht; Rast; Die Nebensonnen; Frühlingstraum; Einsamkeit; Mut; Der Leiermann.

The order of the first twelve poems, underlined, was not disturbed. The subsequent ones, though, were interspersed among them.

Schubert composed the first twelve songs (i.e those underlined) early in 1827. Six months passed before he wrote the remainder. It seems reasonable to suppose as Chailley does in his monograph of 1975, that he worked from Müller's 1823 publication and only later discovered the complete set of twenty-four. He then worked through, missing out the poems he had already set. This results in the published order, with the underlined poems followed by the others, except that Mut and Die Nebensonnen exchange places. Since we have decided to adopt the poet's order, this is of no practical importance to use, and we need no rehearse here the complex motives that have been imputed to Schubert.

Müller had positioned the new poems to amplify the existing emotional scheme, which he then rounds off more thoroughly. To sing them all together after such an emotional entity as the first twelve songs (which Müller himself had at first regarded as complete in itself) will clearly rob them of their context, and inevitably re-traverse parts of the journey already made. Yet this is what Schubert appears to sanction. Our reasons for ignoring this are complex, and can only be summarised here.

Singers of the time, and for some time after, did not sing the whole cycle, but rather selected certain songs. Liszt's arrangements published in 1840 did not give all the songs nor did they appear in any particular order. Schubert's friends had disliked the first twelve songs when he sang them through. Small encouragement in all this to finalise a cycle; they work very well like this, and it's a pity they're never programmed alone as part of a recital. He would have been concerned to preserve their identity – a friend of ours remarked with naïve penetration that the discovery of the extra poems must have made Schubert furious! And these twelve songs were published until after some favourable reviews. It was economically impossible by then to re-publish the first twelve re-ordered with the new.

Briefly, that's out historical justification for using Müller's order. We don't think Schubert every got round to preparing a twenty-four song cycle for performance as a whole. The position is analogous to 'The Art of Fugue'. This also justifies our inconsistent transpositions. Claims for overall key-scheme in Winterreise all seem to involve post facto wisdom and seem a bit specious. Schubert himself authorised certain transpositions. We have kept smooth relationship where we felt it necessary.

The artistic justification is clear when you read the poems in Müller's order. The protagonist change character and becomes positive, powerful and interesting. Beware of making any of the usual assumptions when you read them. Where in the first poem does it say that his beloved has rejected him? We look upon him as a man who mistrusts commitment, and who, afraid of happiness, runs from its possibility. This happens to be a view we can both comprehend to the full. The second song, for us is about his fears, and is also a self-justifying stop to his frustrated prospective in-laws.' She'll be alright'. In the bark of the famous linden tree it's many a loving word he's carved …He's been there with more than one beloved; and it's the realisation that he's going round in amorous circles that leads to the enormously extended journey into his own self pity. Müller said there was 'still a' pretty leaf on a tree. Schubert saw there was 'many a' leaf – but it had to be the very one he chose that falls to the ground. The same ironic awareness of his own emotional posturing is already clear in 'Frozen Tears', a magnificently witty piece of music.

We found immeasurable illumination working from the Bärenreiter facsimile of the manuscript. Many of its details of phrasing and articulation were ironed out by the first edition (some famous and widely used editions deviate from both these primary sources, by the way). In every case of difference between the manuscript and the first edition we find we prefer the former which points the words in detail, or clarifies some musical point. The differences are usually explicable by the postulation of a lazy engraver or a sloppy proof-reader, but these are points we need not insist on. We have followed the manuscript throughout, so everything we do was certainly intended by Schubert at some stage – even the compressed musical phrases in the second song. We're not concerned with establishing what Schubert wanted as a final version – and we doubt the desirability of trying to, even if such a concept can have any real meaning. What we hope to have found is a version that works – where works and music compliment each other, and enhance each other’s beauty and meaning. The listener must judge the extent of our success.

(c) David Wilson-Johnson and David Owen Norris

Schubert and Müller Ordering of Winterreise

Schubert - - - Müller

1 Gute Nacht - 1

2 Die Wetterfahne - 2

3 Gefror’ne Tränen - 3

4 Erstarrung - 4

5 Der Lindenbaum - 5

13 Die Post - 6

6 Wasserflut - 7

7 Auf dem Flusse - 8

8 Rückblick - 9

14 Der greise Kopf - 10

15 Die Krähe - 11

16 Letzte Hoffnung - 12

17 Im Dorfe - 13

18 Der stürmische Morgen - 14

19 Täuschung - 15

20 Der Wegweiser - 16

21 Das Wirtshaus - 17

9 Irrlicht - 18

10 Rast - 19

23 Die Nebensonnen - 20

11 Frühlingstraum - 21

12 Einsamkeit - 22

22 Mut - 23

24 Der Leiermann - 24


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