Rupert Christiansen

Cold Comforts

Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession

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Franz Schubert: The Complete Songs

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A few years back when reviewing for this magazine Ian Bostridge’s A Singer’s Notebook – a collection of his occasional essays and passing reflections – I expressed the hope that such an intellectually distinguished classical tenor would attempt something more coherent and ambitious. Well, here it is, and it’s an impressive success: a long-gestated, intensely enjoyable study of Schubert’s Winterreise (‘Winter Journey’), the series of twenty-four linked songs composed to texts by Wilhelm Müller in 1827, months before Schubert’s early death from syphilis. 

Bostridge has known this uniquely haunting work by heart for some thirty years and, as well as recording his constantly evolving interpretation on CD and film, he has performed it in concert halls all over the world ‘around a hundred times’. Yet far from being bored by its challenges or feeling that any sort of limit has been reached, he is still, as the subtitle suggests, compulsively traversing its complex landscape of moods and meanings.

This is emphatically not a narrow musicological monograph. Bostridge’s academic discipline is history, and though he has many compelling insights into both the vocal and the pianistic technicalities involved, he is more concerned to engage the non-specialist reader by exploring the cycle as a compendium of themes and motifs relating to its moment in German Romanticism, alongside its more universal implications – ‘the winter we all face, the coldness we all experience, the coldness of life itself’, as he movingly puts it. It is no surprise that Samuel Beckett, a lover of this music, is a name that Bostridge often invokes.

Motivating the cycle is its narrator, a nameless everyman who has left a lover – in what circumstances we never know – to trudge a lonely and unhappy path through bleak weather towards no particular destination. At one level Bostridge sees this isolated wanderer as a Byronic anti-hero or someone analogous to a meditative figure in a painting by Caspar David Friedrich. But he can also be seen as something distinctly modern, an alienated existentialist caught in the absurdity of a godless and oneiric universe where absolute meaning and moral value have become merely absurd concepts.

Following both of these threads, Bostridge devotes one chapter to each song and explores its imagery and resonances. His research has been extensive and even if the references to fashionable gurus (Paul Auster, Bob Dylan, W G Sebald, Slavoj Zižek and so forth) can sometimes seem tenuous and opportunistic, he writes in a nicely unbuttoned, unhectoring style that won’t deter the uninitiated.

He’s particularly strong on the politics of post-Napoleonic Vienna and the encoded references in songs such as ‘Der Lindenbaum’ and ‘Rast’ to a liberalism rebelliously at odds with Metternich’s reactionary regime in Schubert’s Austria. But there are also some delightfully erudite excursuses into the higher science of meteorology (‘Auf dem Flusse’, ‘Frühlingstraum’), the passing of mail coaches (‘Die Post’), the habits of corvids (‘Die Krähe’) and the cult of Fenimore Cooper (‘Der Wegweiser’) – all enhanced by imaginative illustration.

Although Schubert’s Winter Journey has been thoughtfully designed and meticulously edited, one wonders why Faber opted for such a chunky, bulky format. A taller, slimmer volume would have reduced the need for constant page-turning and encouraged the reader to absorb Bostridge’s reflections in a more leisurely fashion.

Turning to Franz Schubert: The Complete Songs, one can only be awestruck. A monumental and magnificent piece of syncretic scholarship in three volumes amounting to nearly three thousand pages, it is the fruit of a Herculean labour of love by the pianist Graham Johnson, who for the last forty years has been playing Schubert for most of the world’s great lieder singers (not least Ian Bostridge) in innumerable concerts, as well as recording an epic complete edition of the lieder on thirty-seven CDs for Hyperion. The knowledge he has accumulated in the process must be unequalled in depth and breadth and his catalogue raisonné of this oeuvre of six-hundred-odd songs ranges much further than the dry facts (even if his commentary on Winterreise doesn’t quite have Bostridge’s imaginative élan).

‘Every song is a law unto itself’, Johnson insists; the infinite variety of Schubertian song is evident in all his analyses, with those magical words ‘deceptive simplicity’ recurring in his discussions of both the vocal lines and the piano parts. From such riches, it’s hard to choose a single example of Johnson’s lucidity, expertise and authority, but from my lengthy browse, I pick at random the entries for ‘Der zürnenden Diana’ (‘built on as wide and arched a span as the huntress-goddess’s bow’), ‘Meeres Stille’ (‘a marvel of impressionistic calm’) and ‘Auf dem Strom’ (‘dominated by thoughts of Beethoven’), as well as the fascinating interstitial essays on ‘Dubious, Misattributed and Lost Songs’, ‘Dedicatees and Transcriptions’ and ‘Arrangements’.

My pedantic search for tiny human error in this impeccable publication yielded only the mistaking of Gerhard Huber, the Austrian politician, for Gerold Huber, the accompanist who works exclusively with today’s greatest lieder singer, Christian Gerhaher, and who ranks as Johnson’s equal in the interpretation of Schubert. Did an unconscious twitch of professional jealousy put Johnson off his mark here?

What is striking, finally, about both these books – charged as they are with a wealth of contextual information about songs that are often intensely Romantic in their confessional emotionalism – is how very shadowy and elusive a figure their composer remains. ‘It is indeed fortunate that I have not attempted a Schubert biography because I feel I know less and less about him as the years go by’, Johnson admits. Bostridge sums up the evasiveness of the personality behind the musical genius in a quotation from a letter that a baffled lady wrote to a friend after a soiree at which the composer had played. ‘He was most amiable and talkative,’ she said, ‘but escaped suddenly, before anyone had an inkling.’ Like Shakespeare, one feels, Schubert had no wish (and perhaps no ability) to explain or account for his transcendent art

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