Schubert at the Brink

November 22nd, 2012 Uncategorized

Notes from my Nov. 30 performance of Winterreise with baritone Alexander Dobson.

In a diary entry in March of 1824, Schubert invoked and implored: “O imagination! Man’s greatest treasure, inexhaustible source at which both Art and Learning come to drink! O remain with us…safeguard us…” He may not have feared for any attenuation or surcease of his own boundless creative resources, though he was almost never sufficiently rewarded for his application of them. He did, rather, feel trepidation that humanity risked alienating itself from the wellsprings of inspiration if it succumbed to the proliferating mindset of rationalism. Where other of his contemporaries (Goethe, Beethoven) held the aesthetic and scientific in somewhat closer balance, Schubert was perhaps more wholly pledged to a Romantic ideal. The world of genius that he inhabited seemed a self-sustaining and alternative reality, independent of and impervious to contaminations from the “real world.”

While in many cases the material circumstances at a given moment in a composer’s life may have no impact whatsoever on the music that he or she produces then, the fact that Schubert was terminally ill and acutely aware of his impending mortality when he wrote Winterreise governs every stroke of his pen. His prognosis was parallel to that of someone with AIDS in the 1980’s – a death sentence. In these 24 songs, he identifies with the protagonist’s destiny, confronts the abyss, and with unprecedented immediacy and range of expression takes us on an emotional odyssey over frozen landscapes demarcated by jagged extremes. The psychological progression moves from feelings of rejection & betrayal to paranoia, spiritual numbness, susceptibility to illusion, disorientation, hallucination and suicide. A weathervane clatters as if to revile, teardrops freeze, ominous crows caw and hover, dogs snarl and rattle their chains, the signpost fails to direct, false celestial bodies deceive, sympathy sleeps. Occasionally a pleasant flashback occurs (#5, #11), or stormy resistance is summoned (#8, #18). A last-ditch ‘up-by-the-bootstraps’ effort is made (#22). In the end, however, the static drone of the hurdy-gurdy prevails, its indifferent sound confettied with curls of melody clipped from the minor scale. Schubert’s last vocal utterance here, on a high note never resolved, desperately asks: “Will you play my songs?”

The avant-garde aspects of Winterreise, which disenchanted its first listeners, are precisely those that made Schubert esteem the cycle above all his other songs, and that give it its ever-increasing durability and relevance. Standing at the existential precipice, Schubert brought forth from the depths of his being a music of greatly heightened intensities in relation to dissonance, melodic profile, dramatic and dynamic contrast, and perhaps above all, time. On the one hand, we have numbers in which tempo and duration are tightly compressed (“Der stürmische Morgen,” for instance, lasts little more than 40 seconds), and information density weighs heavily, while on the other, the composer, through emphatically slow metronome markings and unremitting chord/pattern repetition, imposes near stasis on us (“Rast,” for example, presses the point). Phrase asymmetries occur frequently (the measure count is truncated or elongated), and polyrhythmic stratification occurs between the parts (“Rückblick” has the piano in 6/8 and the voice in 3/4 at spots, with even more complex layering elsewhere). An erratic quality takes hold in “Die Wetterfahne” and “Frühlingstraum.” Haunted space and eerie silence create anticipation in “Wasserflut” and “Irrlicht.” Melodies often outline dissonant intervals – the opening of “Gute Nacht” right away descends the interval of a minor ninth, then jumps a 7th and a 4th. Lyricism is still possible – the first quatrain of “Die Krähe” rivals Schubert’s popular “Serenade” in its suppleness of line. And elegance still obtains, even in “Der greise Kopf,” with the vocal ornaments and grace note turns in the piano. For me, the degrees of contrast within “Frühlingstraum” propose dissonance in all parameters. Play the quaint Siciliano phrase of the first bars, and then cut to the last bar of the 2nd ending – the lugubrious arpeggiated minor chord. I cannot cite another such example in which the beginning and ending of a two-page piece contradict one another so obdurately, unless I venture into the repertoire of the 2nd Viennese School, which would not emerge on the scene for almost another 100 years.


Celia Sgroi, whose commendable translations we used for our program, renders the last line of the cycle – “Willst zu meinen Liedern deine Leier dreh’n?” – as, “Will you play your organ to my songs?” At the end of my second paragraph, I condense this to “Will you play my songs?” in order to make my point. I’d like to return to the line in its entirety, and offer further exegesis to reinforce and elaborate that point.

Let’s look at the verbs. The word willst is used, the 2nd person singular informal of the verb willen in the present interrogative. Willen means “to want,” as contrasted with werden, which coupled with other infinitives creates the future tense in German, as happens in English with “will,” — werdest…dreh’n would strictly equate to “will you…play” — or wünschen, “to wish” – wünschest…dreh’n, meaning “do you wish…to play.” Drehen does not really mean “to play” (the direct equivalent is spielen). In the modern sense it denotes circular movement – turning,* rotation, rolling (as in film — “roll the cameras”), or apropos our text, cranking ’round and ’round the turnkey lever on a mechanical organ/lyre or “hurdy-gurdy.” The etymological roots of the word serve only to deepen its significance here, as a Proto-Germanic/Indo-European cognate reaching back to the Greek thrēnos (threnody), or dirge. A defining characteristic of the dirge is its grounding on a sustained tone, or pedal point. In fact, all forms from the stem – dhrēn, dran, dræn, Drohne, and many more from various archaic languages and dialects — leading to our current English word drone, refer to the monotonous buzzing of male bees. Perhaps the author intends our protagonist to be understood as a drone himself, his queen finished with him and leaving him spent of life, the Leiermann droning an accompaniment to his songs.

But before moving on with interpretation, let’s wrap up our word analysis. The nouns – we have Liedern (songs) and Leier (this mechanical lyre that the organ-grinder plays). And the possessives – meinen and deine, mine and yours. Finally the preposition zu – to. A more scholastic translation of our author’s lyric might better be, “Do you want to drone your [mechanical] lyre to my songs?” The question takes on a more plaintive resonance this way, asking for partnership and accompaniment. (To be sure, this is precisely what Müller asks of the composer – he himself regarded these verses as lyrics rather than freestanding poetry, and sought musical setting to complete them.) In the complementarity of the words Liedern and Leier one sees a possible metaphor for cooperation and sympathy. One might even read in a subtle attempt to allure. But Schubert assumes the role of translator in this process as well, and it is he who stokes the query from entreaty to plea by means of dynamics, accent, dissonant inflection and rhetorical gesture. In the same way that he imposes an alternative order upon the author’s original sequence of texts, Schubert makes the ultimate determination as to their tone and meaning.

Either way, the Drehleier symbolizes circularity both in its manner of sound production and the repetitiousness of its tune. A broken ring in Song #7 represented discontinuity of union, the circling flight of a crow overhead drew a lariat of death in Song #15. By the final song, circularity defines in terms of enclosure and endless confinement, a perpetual frozen state of psychological affliction. For some the organ-grinder is a grim reaper figure or the devil himself. His motion ensnares the tired soul, lassos it, loops a noose around it, to rope it down into the circles of Hell. Such is the circularity that swallows our protagonist, in stark negation of the circular return of spring and the thaw and love, the goal of his longing all throughout the cycle.

*Fans of Hindemith will recall the Schwanendreher, based on a medieval German folk song that speaks of the person who turns the swan on a spit over the roasting fire.