“Fremd bin ich eingezogen
Fremd zieh’ ich wieder aus.” (Winterreise n° 1)
(A stranger I came, a stranger I depart)
All told, the key question still remains before which all theorizing and sophistry dissolve: “Quo vadis?”, Der Wegweiser (The signpost, WR n° 20) bringing but a partial answer to Man, that eternal wanderer, because the signpost is essentially part of the countryside picture, giving a feeling of security, of perpetuity, of the immutability of things even if it points vaguely somewhere in the direction of the nearest village or town, Vienna and its General Hospital, Prague or Voltaire’s Bulgaria (“Candide wandered blindly and in tears, casting his eyes towards Heaven... He lay down to sleep in a furrow; it was snowing heavily...”) or may be as far as Constantinople and the Sultan Murat III, to whom Queen Elizabeth I, trying to gain an alliance with the powerful Ottoman Empire, had decided to send “a great and curious present: a clock-organ which could produce a roll of drums, sound a fanfare and play several airs by itself”. Dallam, a Lancashire-born organ builder was Her Majesty’s Leiermann (organ-grinder).
“Willst zu meinen Liedern deine Leier dreh’n?” (To my singing will you grind your hurdy-gurdy, WR n° 24), would ask Wilhelm Müller who was fully aware that only with music his verse would be truly completed, since he wrote: “I take comfort from the hope that a kindred spirit will be found, a soul in tune with my own, who will hear the melodies in the words and deliver them back to me”, (Diary, oct. 8, 1815); an artistic testament to which Schubert having set and sung the whole of Winterreise to his awe-struck friends, echoed: “I like these songs more than any others, and you will come to like them too”. Thirty years after Schubert’s death, Josef von Spaun who was present at the private première of Winterreise, adds: “It is probably true to say that there are no more beautiful German songs, and they were his true swansong”.
That climate of claustrophobic despair, that problem of the absurd as a state of tension created by the contradiction between man’s natural inclination to happiness and the cold unresponsive nature of the world (WR n° 3), that attitude born of loneliness, of a sense of solitude (WR n° 12), that has not yet turned into bitterness nor led to a denial of man’s natural sociability, all that we find in Müller’s Sieben und siebzig Gedichte aus den hinterlassenen Papieren eines reisenden Waldhornisten (Seventy seven poems from the posthumous papers of a travelling horn-player) of 1821, dedicated to Ludwig Tieck and containing Die schöne Müllerin and in his Gedichten aus den hinterlassenen Papieren eines reisenden Waldhornisten of 1824, dedicated to Carl Maria von Weber, “the immortal master of German song”, containing the full text of Die Winterreise that Schubert will discover in 1827. Wilhelm Müller, a North German poet and scholar, never knew of Schubert’s settings of his poems or heard the Viennese assistant-schoolmaster (and composer!) sing Winterreise (The Winter Journey) in a “high voice” full of emotion, so transmuting the base metal of experience into musical gold, into a fund of spontaneously lyrical melody in tune with that leisurely spaciousness that emanates from the Danube basin, the plains of Hungary or the snow-capped summits of the Austrian Alps, with a rapture and poignancy of first sensations that are not easily related to the composer’s age, experience or character (WR n° 4).
“Beautiful German songs”, they were indeed, since Wilhelm Müller (appearing to many as Heine’s forerunner) praising the Volkslied and Goethe’s poetry of wine, mild eroticism, conviviality and ‘deutscher Sang’, Müller, the philologist, was associated with the “Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache”, a society that had postulated the continuity of ‘Eine Poesie’ for Germans already interested in the researches of Romance philology (A.W. de Schlegel, 1818, Raynouard, Fauriel and others), about the Troubadours (and Fin’amor), in order to preserve the treasures of a dying European oral culture.
“Beautiful German songs” dominated — since Homeric times — by the idea of the eternal wanderer and wayfaring (WR n° 1). Life is seen as a journey regulated by the Divine Law to which Man must confirm if he wishes to avoid ruin; it is seen as that right ordering (public and private) that we find in the almanac literature, in the pastoral (WR n° 5) and the legend of a pre-industrialized era of the eighteenth-century German Society with its ostentatious courts, arrogant nobility, timid middle class and inarticulate peasantry (WR n° 17). Then will follow a form of revolt against that order, a quest for freedom from the Age of Reason to the Age of Understanding that opened up a new world in which the creative Volk was to become the hero — or anti-hero —, while the intellectual hegemony of Europe passed from France to Germany, at the turn of the century.
If music, in its power to express sensuousness, stands at the opposite extreme of any language (Müller’s poetry not excepted) — although both address themselves to the ear — sensuousness in all its multitudinous emotions, not least the erotic, if music is the most abstract of all media, because furthest removed from temporal and ratiocinative dialectic (i.e. not permeated with the historic), Winterreise resounds, in retrospect, with an insidious sensuousness with the composer’s memories of his unhappy loves (WR n° 2).
Who indeed was Schubert’s “ferne Geliebte”? Was she Katharina von Làszny, ex-soprano of the Kärntner Tor Theater, Vienna, or Sophie Müller who sang Die junge Nonne on March 3, 1825; or Pauline Anna Milder-Hauptmann (1785-1838) that Schubert and the baritone Michael Vogl (1768-1840) met at Hietzing and who sang Erlkönig at Berlin or Marie Koschak-Pachler at Graz (An Sylvia); was she Maria-Anna Fröhlich – and her pupils – who gave the première of Ständchen at Döbling or, first but not least, Karoline von Esterhàzy, daughter of Count Johann Esterhàzy at Zseliz, Hungary?
Vogl lo sa, non lo dirà ...
That sensuousness, always present in Winterreise (WR n° 13) in spite of those flashes of modern recognition that living on the surface of the mind, caged in a rational self-consciousness, is no actual defence against the hidden forces in our nature (WR n° 15), against a world of visionary (not mystical) experience such as preserved in all the cultural traditions, in the heavens and fairy-lands of folklore and religion, against a realm of fascinating illusion, (WR n° 9) a sort of luminous non-human “otherness” (WR n° 23), not to call it Weltschmerz or misanthropy, that sensuousness attracts and allures those who chafe against the bounds of the ordinary personality; a strange “otherness” that could already be felt in The Seasons, a Poem by James Thomson (1700-1748), an epoch-making work in England, Germany and France, not to omit Russia (“on sleds reclined the furry Russian sits”), Thomson who describes himself as:
“One whom the gay season suited not, and who shunned the summer’s glare”, thus allowing Robert Burns, half a century later, to implore:
Thy gloom will soothe my cheerless soul
When Nature all is sad like me!”
Let alone the afterthoughts and fresh discoveries of the present century, the dotting of the i’s and crossing of the t’s that the purist might feel inclined to effect, the tracking down technical features such as choice of keys, extra-musical sources in the words of songs or influences (Beethoven, Haydn, Gluck, Mozart, Clementi not to mention Walter Scott or Goethe as a songwright who preferred Zelter to Schubert because Zelter’s song-settings make music the almost menial hand-maid of poetry), the swing of the historical pendulum will always turn from analysis, and dry analysis at that, to the adventures of the soul among the masterpieces, far from: “the irritating click-clack symmetry of melody of such a large part of the classical German Lied”, in the words of Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (o Josef von Spaun!); a statement to which Leopold von Sonnleithner had already replied: “I heard him (F.Schubert) accompanying and rehearsing more than a hundred of his songs. Above all he would observe the strictest possible tempo, except in those few cases where he had given explicit written instructions for a ritardando, morendo, accelerando and so on. Moreover, he never permitted any forceful expression in their execution... Composer and singer must interpret the Lied lyrically, not dramatically... Everything that impedes the flow of the melody and disrupts the regularity of the accompaniment is very much at odds with the composer’s intention... ”
If music be “the food of love”, Schubert, a frustrated lover and a frustrated composer of opera (cf. Alfonso und Estrella, 1821-1822, and the aria of Troila that will reappear as Täuschung in WR, n° 19), Schubert will turn to composing Lieder in his quest of Pure Love (and in a sort of long progress of self-immolation(that has nothing to do with the Pilgrim’s Progress) from taverns to taverns (“zum Schloß Eisenstadt”, Dornbach, “zum Kaiserin von Österreich”, not far from Vienna, “zum Rotenkreuz”, “zum grünen Anker” near Stefansdom or “Café Bogner”, among others) down to the last Wirtshaus (WR, n° 21), that is to say Währing Friedhof (cemetery) with its everlasting epitaphs that very often try to fuse the two sides of the attitude to life, on the one hand a cheerful and courageous acceptance of life’s possibilities as well as its problems (WR n° 22), and on the other a deep, often moving and apparently ineradicable spiritual despair (WR n° 16).
In Winterreise, the immemorial tragedies of love and death are caught and given that musical expression that enriches experience, saying what cannot normally be said, confirming its verity in the seemingly casual fall of a cadence or the choice of the mode, in a kind of faith as sensitive and sure as a compass needle, en route towards a state of prelapsarian grace, i.e. pure music, beyond all form of nonentity, since as the Poet says:
“The city is built
To music, therefore never built at all,
And therefore built for ever.”
CLAUDE D'ESPLAS - The Music Lesson
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