Book review: Schubert’s Winter Journey

Ian Bostridge proves as skilled a writer on classical music as he is an interpreter of Schubert's work. Picture: Sim Canetty-Clarke
Ian Bostridge proves as skilled a writer on classical music as he is an interpreter of Schubert's work. Picture: Sim Canetty-Clarke
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Having sung Winterreise so often, Ian Bostridge is an ideal companion on Schubert’s spiritual odyssey, writes Stuart Kelly

FRANZ Schubert’s cycle of 24 songs, Winterreise, is not just one of the most profoundly beautiful of the German 19th century Lieder; as Ian Bostridge argues in this intelligent and sparky guide to the song-cycle, it is one of the genuinely supreme works of Western culture.

In it, a man leaves the house of his beloved (it is unclear whether or not it’s for good), traverses a winter landscape of linden trees, crows, distantly heard post-horns, distantly glimpsed will-o’-the-wisps, strange celestial phenomena and graveyards. It is all sung by a baritone or tenor who has to negotiate eerie transitions from minor to major, challenging top notes and unexpected chromatics that seem to look forward to the 20th century. Bostridge has sung the piece more than 100 times and proves to be an affable explainer of its emotional complexity, even though he clearly realises that writing about music is like dancing to architecture and it should all, right down to the final, breath-holding silence, be best experienced in live performance.

You do not need a degree in musicology to appreciate either Winterreise or Bostridge’s enthusiasm for it. That said, he might have developed more of the technical aspects. There is a danger that the non-specialist can be discomfited by precise analysis of rhythm or key change; however, I found it surprisingly easy to read with either of my recordings – Bostridge’s own with Leif Ove Andsnes or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with Daniel Barenboim – on in the background, and when the discussion occasionally turned to certain cruxes in interpretation to resort to Spotify to hear the differences. Readers and listeners have far more resources available than even ten years ago.

The composition of Winterreise so close to Schubert’s premature death, and the initial scepticism of even his closest friends, has lent a certain Romantic glamour to the piece. As with Beethoven’s late quartets or Mozart’s Requiem, it seems aware of the composer’s own mortality. But it is not a simple series of farewell elegies to an unkind world. In the opening chapter Bostridge reminisces about singing it at the Samuel Beckett Festival in Enniskillen, and it’s a very apposite analogy. There is bleakness, self-deluding bravado and shivering horror in Winterreise, but it is also sardonic and tender with moments of wry humour.

Where Bostridge excels is in taking the limpid, surface-simple texts and unpacking the vast amount of reference, allusion, context and ambiguity in them. He takes in the repressive nature of Metternich’s Austro-Hungarian empire, the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, the Romantic obsession with the Alps and glaciers, Scott, Fenimore Cooper and Byron’s anti-heroes, dance-crazes and a subtle and conscientious reading of the various debates about Schubert’s sexuality. A throwaway line – “In the cramped house of a charcoal burner / I found refuge” – expands into a thorough discussion of the radical carbonari, the relationship between politics and art and anxieties about capitalist modernisation. That’s before one factors in Bostridge’s impressive range of references, not just to other composers, but to ee cummings, Thomas Mann and JM Coetzee, William Bentley’s photographs of snowflakes and Durer’s drawings of pillows, global warming (can we appreciate this Boreal cycle in an age when snow is usually an inconvenience rather than a lethal danger?) and the cultural history of weeping.

Bostridge’s background in history rather than music serves him well here, especially in an ingenious interpretation linking the early songs to the characters in Rousseau’s The New Heloise. Is Schubert’s singer a tutor who has ill-advisedly fallen in love with his pupil? Bostridge’s idea that this is an exiled intellectual is compelling.

There were one or two areas where I wished that Bostridge had gone further. Winterreise is so psychologically astute and emotionally exhausting, I wondered again why Schubert’s attempts at opera were such duds. The final chapter, on the eerie Hurdy-Gurdy Man song, has some wonderfully provocative ruminations on singing it in the style of Bob Dylan, but I always wonder about the strange appearance of this belittled instrument at the end of such a knowing and oblique sequence. The Hurdy-Gurdy man can’t just be an impoverished and mendicant folk-singer, surely.

I would wager that not many people who don’t already know the Winterreise will be using their remaining Christmas book tokens on a copy of the book. Those who do know it will find their appreciation of the work deepened, heightened, widened and made more complicated. Bostridge leaves the reader (and listener) re-enchanted, and no amount of interpretation can outweigh hearing this work again with refreshed ears. Having long admired Bostridge as a singer, I now look forward to following his parallel career as an eloquent and enlightening writer on music.