Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! So sayeth the marquee above the shadow box stage in Butterworth Hall at 92Y. But there was no singing in the hall on Superbowl Sunday evening. Jeremy Denk was there to talk to Ian Bostridge about his new book on Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise, and audience members would have to do their music listening at home.
Still, the quiet focus in the room made me wonder if everyone was steeped in Winterreise-induced wistfulness. The piece – perhaps the world’s gloomiest – tends to do that to you. ‘Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession’ is Bostridge’s exploration of Winterreise, one essay for each of the 24 songs in the 75-minute masterpiece. Bostridge’s observations are not simply interesting on their own terms, but put into words what makes Winterreise such an emotional standout. Here are some comments from the evening that made me want to read the book:
- Bostridge’s motivation for writing the book came from his spare time practice of trying his hand at translating Müller’s poetry. I like the image of an artist coming into a room and turning to art, not to Twitter, his contract, or the mirror.
- The protagonist of Winterreise must leave the home of his beloved, but it’s never clear why. The cycle becomes a blank slate for all of us: Where are we going? Why are we here? The grief is existential. Bostridge also finds it a very angry piece, more than just gloomy.
- In an excerpt of the book, Bostridge characterizes the first song, ‘Gute Nacht,’ (words, music) as “one of those songs that seem to have been going on forever at the very moment that they start.” It is difficult to use words to capture a musical essence, but this nails it.
- Bostridge prefers the Fischer-Dieskau interpretation of the cycle, with more color and gallows humor than Hans Hotter, the other historic recording.
- ‘Der Lindenbaum’ (words, music), which I sang as a teenager as if it were my destiny, had a second life as a folk song. The Comedian Harmonists do it well.
- Bostridge made the case that music lives in performance, not the printed score. This is opposite to the academic view. Singing words, “pulls the music around,” and adds a layer of unpitched music that is very important to performance.
- For performance, Bostridge finds it sacrilege to rehearse ‘Der Leiermann,’ (The Hurdy-Gurdy Player, words, music) the mysterious closing song. The piano part – with a drone in the left hand and mechanical flourishes in the right – is so simple that even I can play it, accompanying the spare vocal line. The scene might be the narrator’s encounter with death, or something else.
Denk played some tantalizing examples at the piano, illustrating how triplets and groups of three give a sense of circling – Der Krähe (The Crow: words, music), with triplets in the piano as the crow overhead, Frühlingstraum (Dream of Spring: words, music), with a beautiful triple dance in the piano painting the singer’s dreams, and Die Nebensonnen (Phantom Suns: words, music), which refers to a refraction of the sun in which it seems two mock suns appear on either side of it. Bostridge pointed out that this kind of natural phenomenon was seen by the Romantics as something from the cusp of reality.
Less discussed was ‘Gefrorne Tranen’ (Frozen Tears: words, music), another one that I sang through during many a tweenage weep fest. It’s got nothing on that other ‘frozen’ sensation, which I won’t merit with a link. Why are there more female classical singers than males? Maybe they find this music at the right time, and can’t stop singing it.
After an evening spent talking about a work that finds infinite ways to mourn loss, I found myself surrounded by the ghosts of other losses: the German community that once defined the neighborhood around the Y, and the indefinite suspension of the opera competition and performances at the nearby Liederkranz Society. Winterreise is a timeless piece that any human can relate to. Will humans keep listening?
Meanwhile, on my way home, at the bottom of the subway stairs I met a woman with a child in her lap and tears on her cheeks, taking her own winter journey.
Here is Bostridge singing Winterreise in full, for your listening, or weeping, enjoyment: