Winterreise Program Notes

The program notes are written by Rena Roussin, Musicologist-in-Residence.

From the mid-eighteenth-century through to the end of the nineteenth, numerous German-speaking writers (the most famous among them including Goethe and Heine) contributed unprecedented amounts of poetry to German literature. In the same time period, multiple German and Austrian composers were reading and setting those texts to music for solo singer with piano, creating an expansive repertory of Lieder (songs). While most Austro-German composers—Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms, for select examples—experimented with and wrote in this genre, no composer contributed more to it or wielded greater influence over the Lied than Austrian-born Franz Schubert (1797-1828). His 600+ Lieder span the work of numerous poets, styles, and forms of musical experimentation, and are especially renowned for their musical and psychological complexity and emotional nuance. Like other contemporary composers, Schubert often joined multiple Lieder with texts by the same poet or about the same theme into a song cycle, songs that were published together and meant to be performed as one piece. Though Schubert wrote two additional cycles, entitled Die schöne Müllerin (1823) and Schwanengesang (1828, published posthumously), Winterreise (1827) is his most widely-performed and well-known cycle.

Winterreise was, in many ways, an unlikely candidate for such enduring fame and popularity. Indeed, when Schubert first performed the initial 12 songs for an audience of his friends, they responded with dismay to the music and his setting of the words. The composer, however, was unfazed. He noted both that the new composition “had cost him more than all his other songs,” but that he liked them “more than all the rest” he had written. The song cycle sets to music a collection of 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller, which on the surface tell a narrative common to German literary Romanticism: a jilted lover undertakes a literal and/or psychological journey, which commonly ends in madness or death. The first 12 songs focus on grief over lost love, while the final 12 become increasingly death-driven. At the time of composition, the 30-year old Schubert was terminally ill, and aware that his own death was likely imminent: the song cycle, in many ways, was likely his reckoning with his own death.

As Lieder scholar Susan Youens has stressed, Winterreise’s success is likely in no small part due to Schubert’s willingness to fearlessly and unblinkingly engage with such painful emotions through his music.* The Wanderer, after all, undergoes “a wintry inner voyage of discovery through the uncharted regions of the soul.” While Schubert’s piano writing is an outstanding display of wintry landscape (depicting, at different points, a storm, tears melting snow, and water raging underneath a layer of ice), it is equally a depiction of the Wanderer’s inner landscape as he searches his soul “for answers to the mystery of his inner being.” Yet while Müller’s words and Schubert’s music tell us in great detail about the Wanderer’s shifts of feeling and thought as he questions grief, alienation, solitude, and death, there is no real introduction to the character: we know nothing of his background, his age, and nothing about his life beyond his lost love. In that sense, the piece opens outwards: free of extensive descriptions of a specific protagonist, we as listeners are left free to consider how this wintry wandering maps onto our own souls. The greatest gift of Schubert’s music, perhaps, is that unlike his Wanderer, we are not left alone when we undertake this journey.

Readers who are more familiar with Lieder are probably, by this point, noticing I’ve evaded one glaring point: Winterreise is typically sung by a single soloist. Gregor Meyer, who arranged the song cycle in 2017 for pianist, baritone soloist, and SATB choir, did so both with the goal of making the songs available to a broader audience and range of musicians—but also for expressive goals. Drawing on the tradition of the Greek chorus, Meyer hoped to “convey the emotional world” of Winterreise’s Wanderer to reflect and expand on the Wanderer’s thoughts. Yet one could also hear his SATB arrangement differently (as, admittedly, I do), hearing it not as an independent, objective chorus, but rather as the Wanderer’s increasingly troubled mind in dialogue with and questioning itself.

Quite regrettably, in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe it was widely considered unfeminine and unacceptable for women to compose music; therefore, while many women participated in musical life as performers, select few were encouraged to work as composers, and even fewer could consider publishing their works. Lieder and part-songs, however, were among the few genres to which women could contribute and publish without fear of major social and patriarchal repercussions. Tonight’s concert showcases four of these compositions, which echo Winterreise’s meditations on love, loss, and nature. Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel’s a cappella part songs, “Schöne Fremde” and “Lockung” celebrate the magic of the night and springtime (and provide us Torontonians with a brief respite from winter!). Choral settings of two of Clara Schumann’s Lieder reflect either on lost love (“Ich stand in dunkeln Träumen”)—arguably recalling the narrative trajectory of Winterreise—while her setting of “Liebst du um Schönheit” shows a sunnier side of Lieder repertoire, stressing the speaker’s desire to be loved for love alone, rather than for beauty, youth, or riches.

*These program notes draw on and quote from Susan Youens’s essay “A Wintry Geography of the Soul: Schubert’s Winterreise,” in Schubert’s Winterreise: A Winter Journey in Poetry, Image, & Song, by Katrin Talbot et. al (Madison: The University of Wisconisn Press, 2003), xi-xxii