Warming to Schubert’s Winter Song
Ian Bostridge has been performing Schubert’s song cycle “Winterreise” for 20 years. Now’s he’s written a book that walks you through its intricate beauty.
Franz Schubert’s monolithic song cycle, Winterreise, or Winter Journey, contains 24 songs based on poems by Wilhelm Müller. A complete performance, meant for a solo singer and pianist, clocks in at just over 70 minutes. The cycle, which follows a dejected young man wandering through a winter landscape, was completed in 1828, just before Schubert’s death (most likely from syphilis) at the young age of 31. English tenor Ian Bostridge estimates that he’s performed the cycle about 100 times, and dates his obsession with the piece from the first time he heard it 20 years ago in his grade-school German class. Luckily, Bostridge is more than a performer—he’s a scholar and a writer to boot. In his most recent book, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, Bostridge explores each song in the cycle chapter by chapter, unlocking the meaning and cultural connections within. The result is a magnificent study of one of the most influential and simultaneously mysterious musical works of the Romantic period. And there’s no one better to crack it open than Bostridge, who knows its wormholes better than anyone.
You’ve sung Winterreise more than 100 times—how do you keep your performance fresh?
Well, there are always different factors: there’s a different pianist, your voice is in a different place, and the interaction with the audience is tantamount. But part of the reason I wrote the book is that I wanted to unlock it in my mind, and to keep discovering something new.
This book is very well researched. How long did it take you to write?
In a way, it’s taken me since I first started learning the piece. That’s why I called it “An Anatomy of an Obsession”—because it has been 20 years. I had the idea of writing it after finishing my last book and it took me about two years to write. It was the sort of the thing you couldn’t really do as a professional singer without the Internet. In the Internet age doing the research is much easier.
Americans don’t often get exposed to lieder unless they are musicians or studying music in some way. What was your first encounter with German song?
I was very lucky in school because I had a wonderful German teacher and I fell in love with German song. It carried on as a hobby in my teenage years. Singing only became a professional possibility for me in my late 20s. It coincided with my realization that becoming a professor—or teaching—was unlikely.
You have a background in academia—and studied history at Oxford and Cambridge. You’ve even published a book on the history of witchcraft. How do you manage to do two things so well?
With singing you have a lot of down time. Performing recitals and concerts, even operas, you’ll find yourself on your own much of time, in a new city. You have time to explore. Of course, if you’re learning new material then you don’t have as much free time. Some years are better than others, but you can do it if you are disciplined with your time.
What is your process like in preparing such a lengthy song cycle?
This is out of proportion because I know this piece quite well. The prospect now of learning a 70-minute piece would be difficult. It’s just slower now. I’m lucky that when I give a performance of Winterreise I can mark through the piece in rehearsal and find whatever inspiration I can in the moment. I could sing it standing on my head.
Why write about Winterreise, as opposed to another song cycle?
It seemed to be a rather deep piece. I wanted to burrow into its depths. There are endless cultural connections. I don’t think you’d be able to write such a book about say, Schubert’s Schwanengesang (Swan Song). It wouldn’t have this breadth. Winterreise speaks to what was happening in the 1820s, and it speaks to us as well.
What, in your opinion, is the greatest misconception about Schubert?
I got the bee in my bonnet about the sexuality issue [Ed note: many scholars have theorized that Schubert was gay] because the quality of the academic work done on the issue was so poor. This didn’t mean he didn’t have homosexual encounters, perhaps he did—but the only solid evidence we have is that he did have love for two women. It drove me nuts, but in the ’80s it was a very popular thing to write about in academia.
You mention the composer Benjamin Britten as someone who was profoundly influenced by Schubert in the book.
I suppose Britten tended to like composers who he thought of as more natural and less academic. He went through a big Beethoven phase when he was young. He didn’t turn against him but he didn’t perform him as much. I think he may have found Beethoven too intellectual, in a way. It was the same with Brahms; he hated Brahms, which is something I’ve never understood. He saw him as a Victorian. The tradition in Schubert scholarship is to align the composer with yourself, to identify with him, which is what I’m doing now, I suppose.
You bring up the fact that many scholars see Beethoven’s music as a representation of the masculine and Schubert’s of the feminine.
That started with Schumann and it carried on into the 19th century. It’s a very mid-Victorian view of sexuality. It’s a real reaction against the idea of fluid sexuality. It’s an oversimplification of their music, certainly.
Winterreise is most often performed by a man. How could an interpretation by a woman change the intent of the piece?
It’s been very successfully performed by female singers—a lot of my favorite performances are by women like Christina Schaefer, and more. Some say women should approach it as if they were pretending to be a man. I totally disagree. I don’t think it should be performed as a trouser role. The piece isn’t about a message. It’s an an encounter, an exploration, meaning it can be performed by anyone.
In the chapter on the song ‘Gefrorne Tränen” (Frozen Tears) you discuss lieder in the context of World War II. I have often wondered if Americans’ lack of exposure to German music or hesitation to appreciate it stems from emotions surrounding the war. When you first began singing German lieder, did you ever experience this frustration?
Not really. There is such a strong German-Jewish connection with this cycle in particular. German emigres are still a huge part of this audience in the United Kingdom. The lied tradition and German Nationalism links are there, though. Slavoj Žižek writes about German soldiers listening to Winterreise and carrying it with them through the war. He wonders, what is the art doing? Is it there to enable them to commit horrible acts or to give them solace? It’s an endless discussion.
Your film version of Winterreise, which appeared on public television in Britain just after Christmas in 1997, is famous—what made you decide to use this medium?
I was very new, I had only been singing full-time for a year when I was asked to do that. I was asked by the wonderful and imaginative Helen Sprott of Channel 4 television, and she had a favorite director in mind, David Alden. She had heard my singing and it was done to the absolute highest standard. We went to look at a derelict mental hospital, but it was full of pigeons. So instead we built a replica on a soundstage. It was a total privilege. I took it for granted at the time but in retrospect it was such a incredible thing to do.
It seems the choice of pianist is so important in performing this piece. How do you go about choosing a partner, and how does the rehearsal process work?
I have a long performance history with Julius Drake. I may hear a pianist and ask them to do it. I’ve done a lot of them with Thomas Adès, the composer. Different sorts of concert halls want different things, based on the audience. It depends on the pianist, the time for rehearsal. One of the good things about doing it with someone new is that it takes you back to the score. Because the piece is so much in my head, you are reminded of things when you get back to the page.
Why are you superstitious about rehearsing the last song in the cycle, “Der Leiermann” (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man)?
It’s got a improvisational quality to it, and it’s ineffable and untouchable. You want to perform it naturally as it occurs with what’s come before. It sounds pretentious, but that’s how it feels.
In the book you mention Schubert was fascinated by the work of James Fenimore Cooper near the end of his life. Why do you think he was drawn to his work?
I think Germans at the time in general were really fascinated by the West—because they saw America as the land of opportunity. Also, I think he had seen the connection of seeing someone moving through a landscape. Goethe read them all in a matter of weeks. It wasn’t unusual. The Wild West was very intriguing to Germans at that time.
In the end of the book you describe how difficult it is to return to the real world after performing Winterreise. What has been the strangest performance for you?
There have been very strange performances. I gave one in a festival in Austria which was held in the company museum of the Swarovski crystals. There I was in a small room filled with crystals, singing to a group of 100 people, who I didn’t know. That was a very strange day. I’ve performed it in theaters that sat 2,000 people. Just last month I gave a performance of it in someone’s home, which is closer to its origins. The engagement with the audience makes all the difference—it’s like Shakespeare, meant to be performed in the Globe. You are supposed to be able to interact. It makes sense, when you think of its connections with the character of Hamlet. “To Be or Not to Be,” is not a soliloquy. It’s Hamlet directly addressing the audience.
How does a modern audience respond to Winterreise?
It’s got a religious quality about it. It’s filled with energy and irony. Overall, the performers and the audience have gone through a common experience. That’s something that’s developed over the years. This is one of the high holy pieces of the classical community. This is why people sit through this 70-minute cycle. It draws them in and they experience something profound from being there.