Retracing a Winter's Journey

Retracing a Winter's Journey: Franz Schubert's "Winterreise"

Susan Youens
Copyright Date: 1991
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 348
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt24hg6h
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  • Book Info
    Retracing a Winter's Journey
    Book Description:

    I like these songs better than all the rest, and someday you will too, Franz Schubert told the friends who were the first to hear his song cycle, Winterreise. These lieder have always found admiring audiences, but the poetry he chose to set them to has been widely regarded as weak and trivial. In Retracing a Winter's Journey, Susan Youens looks not only at Schubert's music but at the poetry, drawn from the works of Wilhelm Müller, who once wrote in his diary, "perhaps there is a kindred spirit somewhere who will hear the tunes behind the words and give them back to me!"

    Youens maintains that Müller, in depicting the wanderings of the alienated lover, produced poetry that was simple but not simple-minded, poetry that embraced simplicity as part of its meaning. In her view, Müller used the ruder folk forms to give his verse greater immediacy, to convey more powerfully the wanderer's complex inner state. Youens addresses many different aspects of Winterreise: the cultural milieu to which it belonged, the genesis of both the poetry and the music, Schubert's transformation of poetic cycle into music, the philosophical dimension of the work, and its musical structure.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6828-5
    Subjects: Music, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    Susan Youens
  5. Part I. The Poet and the Composer

    • CHAPTER 1 Genesis and Sources
      (pp. 3-49)

      Schubert′s song cycle Winterreise, D. 911, is one of the most famous representatives of the genre, the beauty and power of its twenty-four songs widely acknowledged. Most twentieth-century writers on music, however, have scorned the poems by Wilhelm Müller which Schubert chose for the cycle, although some critics in the last century and literary scholars both then and now have believed otherwise. Song begins with a composer′s responses to a poet′s words, and Schubert responded to these words with some of his best and most intense music. Those who characterize Müller′s text as second-rate verse that happened to inspire a...

    • CHAPTER 2 The Texts of Winterreise
      (pp. 50-72)

      Marie von Pratobevera, later the sister-in-law of Schubert′s first biographer, Heinrich Kreißle von Hellborn, wrote in a letter shortly after the publication of Winterreise, Part I, that the cycle consisted of ″laments over a sweetheart′s unfaithfulness ... a companion-piece to the ′Maid of the Mill′ songs, by the same poet and nearly identical in content.″¹ Part II had not yet appeared, and she could not have known what would follow after the twelfth song, but later writers who knew the entire work either saw little more than dated love laments or else fell into a trap arising from Müller′s original...

    • CHAPTER 3 The Music of Winterreise
      (pp. 73-116)

      Winterreise is one of Schubert′s largest and most profound compositions, its length (not, of course, the sole index of profundity) equivalent to that of many operas. Its tragic subject elicited from Schubert a deeper response to existential questions and greater musical complexity than did the Deutsche Messe, also composed in 1827; Schubert, uninspired by liturgical contexts for composition, was inspired to the highest degree by this secular poetry, with its poeticized philosophy of existential torment. Here, Schubert′s operatic ambitions, hampered in their proper sphere by bad libretti and dramaturgical flaws, could be transferred to the genre that he above all...

  6. Part II. The Songs

    • PART I

      • 1. Gute Nacht
        (pp. 119-130)

        Müller was given to making numerous revisions of his poems, revisions one can trace throughout the extant sources. For example, he slightly altered the last four lines of ″Gute Nacht″ in the Waldhornisten II:

        Ich schreibe nur im Gehen

        An′s Thor noch gute Nacht,

        Damit du mögest sehen,

        Ich hab′ an dich gedacht.²

        (In leaving, I write only ″Good night″ on the gate, that you might see that I thought of you.)

        In the later ending, Müller has the wanderer himself point out the simplicity and restraint of his parting message, with no harsh words, only the wish that she...

      • 2. Die Wetterfahne
        (pp. 131-137)

        As the wanderer leaves his sweetheart′s house, he looks back and sees the weathervane spinning in the wind. In another instance of the paranoia born of his sense of difference from others, he imagines that it ″whistled to mock the poor fugitive.″ The wanderer′s very identity now is as a ″Flüchtling,″ a choice of word all the more powerful because of the third-person address. The wind that plays with hearts, spinning them about like a weather vane, is emblematic of inconstant love. A younger contemporary of Müller′s, the great poet Eduard Mörike, made the simile explicit in his ″Lied vom...

      • 3. Gefror′ne Tränen
        (pp. 138-143)

        Müller′s detractors have traditionally found fault with ″Gefror′ne Tränen″ for its supposed triteness and improbability; castigating the unfortunate image of the rolling ice tears is among the first lines of attack on the poet. The poem is actually a psychologically acute portrayal of the mechanisms of grief and alienation, beginning with lamentation so deep-seated that the mourner weeps before he is aware of doing so. From the analytically inclined wanderer, the phenomenon impels an uneasy probing of his alienated state and questions about the mystery of his emotional being. ″Gefror′ne Tränen″ is the first poem in the cycle with no...

      • 4. Erstarrung
        (pp. 144-150)

        The frozen/fiery polarity of hot tears melting the ice and snow in ″Gefror′ne Tranen,″ a German descendant of the Petrarchan conceit ″il cor in ghiaccio e′n foco″ (the heart in frost and fire), recurs in the next song. There is an implied cause-and-effect relationship between the two poems as well, the wanderer′s panic-stricken search in ″Erstarrung″ for souvenirs of his sweetheart impelled by his doubts in ″Gefror′ne Tranen.″ He has already begun to fear that his heart is frozen, without the capacity for great grief; without a tangible memento, an object of some kind, he fears that he will forget...

      • 5. Der Lindenbaum
        (pp. 151-169)

        The wanderer′s futile search in ″Erstarrung″ for a souvenir of his past love, a flower or a fragment of the grassy bank, leads him to another green memory: the linden tree that had been his refuge in the past, the tree he had just that evening passed by on his way out of the town. Even though it is dark when he begins to sing, he closes his eyes, shutting out the winter night and replacing it with a different darkness in which he can recall more clearly the remembered sound of the linden leaves rustling. What he hears and...

      • 6. Wasserflut
        (pp. 170-175)

        The polarity of hot and cold, ″cold flakes″ and ″burning grief,″ is a poetic leitmotiv already familiar from ″Gefror′ne Tränen″ and ″Erstarrung.″ Once again, the wanderer insists that his sorrow still speaks to him of his lost sweetheart and that his grief is not tepid, but burning hot. The exaggerated phantasms of the imagination that he concocts in ″Wasserflut″ are the products of the anxiety and fears he has expressed earlier. Lest he forget and his heart freeze in the emotional death he dreads, he will send his grief back to its source for renewal. The stream of tears he...

      • 7. Auf dem Fluße
        (pp. 176-186)

        Capell singles out this poem as a particularly telling example of Müller′s faults as a poet. ″The text contains some of Müller′s rather unfortunate conceits, conceits so much below the music that non-German audiences perhaps have some compensation if they miss the words when Schubert is sung. The verses are about the graving of the jilt′s name on the ice of the frozen river.″¹ There is more to ″Auf dem′ Flulße″ than that, as shown by the recent and differing interpretations by David Lewin and Anthony Newcomb.² The ″graving of the jilt′s name″ is not the childish gesture it might...

      • 8. Rückblick
        (pp. 187-195)

        Immersed in memory once more, the wanderer relives his frantic flight from the sweetheart′s town as if it were the present moment. With the lines ″The soles of my feet burn, though I walk on ice and snow,″ Müller recalls the fire/ice antinomy of ″Gefror′ne Tränen,″ ″Erstarrung,″ and ″Wasserflut″ for the last time in Part I, but no longer as a principal motif. In his breathless haste to leave the wanderer did not look where he was going and stumbled over each stone in his path, the difficulties of his escape heightened by the flock of crows who ″threw snowballs...

      • 9. [Das] Irrlicht
        (pp. 196-202)

        Along the course of his inward journey, the wanderer now follows a will-o′-the-wisp, a delusory train of thought that leads him into the depths of depression. Such is the wanderer′s melancholy that he declares himself unconcerned with finding a way out of the abyss, although Müller′s careful choice of words indicates both the bravado of denial and its opposite. This is a classic instance of ambivalence in which the proclamation ″I don′t care″ is proof that one cares very much indeed. But melancholy resignation rules over bravado. ″My way out″ implies knowledge of a goal and the energy and resolve...

      • 10. Rast
        (pp. 203-207)

        As long as he continues on his way, the wanderer does not notice how tired he is because the act of wandering draws him along, occupying his entire awareness. Later, in ″Das Wirtshaus,″ he will say that his ″path″ leads him on, but here he still experiences the journey as directionless wandering. As in ″Der Wegweiser,″ he recognizes the inhospitable nature of the roads along which he travels, but he does not yet question why this should be. It is too cold to stand still, and the storm winds lighten the weight on his back, the wintry elements aiding and...

      • 11. Frühlingstraum
        (pp. 208-215)

        The wanderer at last falls asleep and dreams of a springtime vista that closely resembles the idyllic memories in ″Rückblick,″ with Maytime flowers, green meadows, and birdsong. Twice he is awakened, startled out of sleep by the cocks′ crowing and the screeching of ravens outside on the roof. The first time, he is able to go back to sleep and recapture his dream, but when he is once more awakened in the same way, it is irretrievably gone. He is left desolate, the cold, darkness, and isolation all the more painful in comparison with the Arcadian loveliness of his dream...

      • 12. Einsamkeit
        (pp. 216-222)

        The wanderer, his scant sleep broken by interrupted dreams, continues saddened and exhausted, ″with dragging feet,″ on his journey. In the aftermath of ″Frühlingstraum,″ he is obsessed with his loneliness and sense of difference from others, and he imagines analogies in Nature both for his slow, tired motion and the marks of his separation from others. (It is a disturbing measure of his alienation that the standard of comparison, here as elsewhere, is not to be found in living beings, but in nonhuman Nature.) He is, he says, like a dismal cloud, barely propelled through the treetops by a small...

    • PART II

      • 13. Die Post
        (pp. 223-233)

        Capell calls ″Die Post″ the ″problem of the Winterreise″ and writes that, although it ″does well enough″ in Müller′s sequence, ″its lightness is out of keeping with the tragic wanderer who is soon to say, ′lch bin zu Ende mit allen Traumen′ ″ in ″Im Dorfe.′″ According to Capell, Schubert in October 1827 (″Die Post″ was composed before that date) might not have recalled right away the ″passion and significance with which he had charged [the songs] composed earlier in the year,″ or perhaps, he proposed, the song was conceived as inappropriate comic relief from the bleakness on either side....

      • 14. Der greise Kopf
        (pp. 234-239)

        The wanderer has slept out in the open, and frost has formed on his hair during the night. When he awakens, he believes for a moment that his hair has turned white overnight, and therefore he rejoices in his proximity to death. This is the only time in the entire cycle that Müller uses the verb ″sich freuen,″ even modifying it with the adverb ″sehr″ to indicate great rejoicing. The frost soon melts, however, the wanderer′s hair is black once again, and he shudders in horror. Surely his travails deserve, he implies, the reward of age and imminent death granted...

      • 15. Die Krähe
        (pp. 240-244)

        The wanderer hopes that the crow that has followed him since he left the town is an omen of death, circling overhead like a vulture waiting for its intended prey to die. The words ″wohl bald,″ and ″hier″ (soon, here), clustered together in one anxious question, are registers of his mounting desperation: ″Do you intend soon to seize my body as your prey here?″ In the last stanza, he tries to assure himself that he will no longer have to continue his journey, that it will end here in death, and he therefore speaks as if wish were fact, declaring,...

      • 16. Letzte Hoffnung
        (pp. 245-250)

        The wanderer once more finds the symbol of his own condition in an image from Nature: a leaf falling from a tree. The fate of the leaf, blown from its branch by the wind, represents for the wanderer the death of hope. An extraordinary range of emotions is compressed into these twelve lines. He often stands lost in thought, he tells us, before the trees that have long represented comfort, shelter, and love to him (″Der Lindenbaum,″ stanzas 1 and 2), trees now with their last autumnal leaves clinging tenuously to the branches. What those thoughts are, he does not...

      • 17. Im Dorfe
        (pp. 251-260)

        The nocturnal scene is reminiscent of ″Gute Nacht,″ not only in the images of sleeping townspeople and wakeful dogs but in the distinction between two separate worlds: that of the wanderer and that of the sleeping villagers, by extension, the rest of humanity. The wanderer is acutely aware that others (his sweetheart in ″Gute Nacht,″ the villagers of ″Im Dode″) can sleep undisturbed by biting torment within, the serpent of pain he has invoked in ″Rast.″ They have dream fantasies of desires both good and bad which vanish with the dawn, leaving no trace behind, unlike the wanderer, who ″reflects...

      • 18. Der stürmische Morgen
        (pp. 261-265)

        The somber meditation in ″Im Dorfe″ is followed by an outburst of furious energy in ″Der sturmische Morgen.″ Rejecting futile dreams, the wanderer finds a climate more to his liking—the tempest he had earlier longed for in ″Einsamkeit″—and declares himself revitalized by the turmoil. Müller′s scene is painterly in its details (the verb ″gemalt,″ or ″painted″ in stanza 3 is indeed appropriate): the gray robe of the sky rent by the storm; the spent fragments of tattered storm clouds which drift into one another, at the mercy of the wind; and the red flare of the lightning, a...

      • 19. Täuschung
        (pp. 266-271)

        As in ″Irrlicht,″ the wanderer follows another illusory light without caring where it leads him. The near-frenzy of ″Der sturmische Morgen″ has dissipated, and the dreams renounced in ″Im Dorfe″ are not so easily banished when nothing exists to take their place. Anyone as wretched as he is gladly—Müller twice in close proximity uses the word ″gem,″ found nowhere else in the cycle—surrenders to the bright guile that promises refuge and love somewhere beyond the night and cold. The wanderer′s fantasies never change. Once again, he yearns for the reciprocated love of ″Fruhlingstraum″ and longs to come in...

      • 20. Der Wegweiser
        (pp. 272-277)

        For the first time, the wanderer asks himself why his journey is so different from that of others, what compulsion drives him to continue, and why he chooses to be so isolated. It is not a matter of chance that he takes hidden, difficult paths (the percussive It I and 1st! consonants of ″versteckte Stege″ the embodiment in sound of the craggy pathways): he seeks them out, without knowing why. Signposts point the way to towns, but he will have nothing to do with other human beings, even though he is guiltless of any crime. When he asks himself what...

      • 21. Das Wirtshaus
        (pp. 278-284)

        Müller took his images in ″Das Wirtshaus″ from life. In nineteenth-century Austria and Germany, it was the custom for innkeepers to put evergreen wreaths on the doors of inns and country houses as a sign to customers that the new wine, or Heurige, was available. Schubert, whose friends told of his liking for an occasional glass of Heurige at the cafes in nearby Grinzing, would surely have recognized the reference. Here, the wanderer sees the funeral garlands in a cemetery and associates them with the hospitality and shelter of an inn. Once again, he looks for signs and portents that...

      • 22. Mut
        (pp. 285-288)

        In ″Mut,″ the wanderer attempts a bravado exercise in denial. There is nothing ″bright and merry″ about this song, in which both text and music have the compression of a clenched fist. The omission of the subject ″ich″ from the three parallel statements of negation in the second stanza, ″hore nicht,″ ″habe keine,″ ″fühle nicht,″ is both Müller′s characteristic economy and a register of unconscious revelation, of poetic truth telling. Once the wanderer identifies the opponents in his internal struggle, ″I″ and ″my heart,″ in stanza 1, he omits the subject ″ich″ and thereby places the verb—the action—first....

      • 23. Die Nebensonnen
        (pp. 289-294)

        The three suns have been variously interpreted (one writer proposed a Pauline exegesis as Faith, Hope, and Love),¹ but the most obvious reading is the right one: the two illusory suns are symbols of the beloved′s eyes. Müller had used this metonymic image of heavenly lights and the beloved′s eyes in two earlier poems, most notably ″The Two Stars″ from 1817.

        Die zweie Sterne

        Ich weßs zwei Sterne stehen,

        Den Namen weiß ich nicht,

        Die waren am ganzen Himmel

        Mein allerliebstes Licht.

        Sie schienen immer und immer

        So traut zum Fenster herein,

        Vier selige Augen schauten

        So immer und immer...

      • 24. Der Leiermann
        (pp. 295-306)

        Even those who find little good to say about Müller′s poetry admit that the last poem in the cycle goes far toward redeeming its author. Capell, no admirer of the poet, writes that ″Müller must be given his due. ′Der Leiermann′ was an inspired ending.″¹ In this powerful work, utmost economy of means produces the maximum emotional effect, all the greater for the objectivity of tone. Schubert took his cue from the poet when he pared the musical materials for this song to the bare minimum, appropriating the text so thoroughly into music that it is impossible to read the...

  7. Postlude
    (pp. 307-312)

    One cannot leave Winterreise without addressing the vexed question of words and music in nineteenth-century lieder. Müller thought of the two arts as necessary complements of each other, as halves of a whole, although within limits—he knew the difference between poesia per musica and poesia definitely not per musica, and he knew also the limits of his own musical understanding. However, other writers in his own century, Nietzsche among them,¹ spelled out the truism that words and music are combatants that battle it out in an arena where music always has the superior arsenal and always subjugates whatever victimized...

  8. APPENDIX. Ludwig Uhland′s Wander-Lieder
    (pp. 313-318)
  9. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 319-326)
  10. Index
    (pp. 327-330)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 331-331)