Franz Schubert

Winterreise

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: Approx. 70 Minutes
Genre: Song Cycle
Time of Creation: 1827
World Premiere: January 10, 1828 (Vienna – only the first song)

Table of Contents

Schubert's Winterreise in 5 Sentences

Franz Schubert wrote his song cycle Winterreise („Winter Journey“) in two stages: The first half of the total of 24 songs was written in February 1827, the second half in October 1827. Although a continuous plot is not directly discernible in Winterreise, the 24 songs can be understood as the 24 stations of a young wanderer (more on this below in the “Questions and Answers”). The emotional motif that runs through the entire cycle and is impressively depicted musically by Schubert is human pain. Winterreise has therefore been interpreted in many ways, for example in connection with Schubert’s personal problems as well as with the oppressive political situation in Vienna at the time (Chancellor Metternich).

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Schubert's Winterreise

Highlight 1: Good Night

“Good Night” is the name of the first song in the cycle, and with the famous first line of text, the whole context is actually immediately clear: “I moved in as a stranger and I’m moving out as a stranger.” Our wanderer, whom we will follow for the next 24 songs, leaves the city disappointed:

Highlight 2: The linden tree

This song is very well known, because over time it advanced to a folk song. The lyrical subject wanders past a linden tree (often a symbol of home and security in Romanticism) and must close his eyes in emotion.

This song is one of several places in Winterreise where the lyrical subject would have the theoretical possibility to turn back. One almost “hopes” for it, because somehow one has the feeling from the beginning that this wandering will not have a good end. But it comes as it must. The lyrical subject closes his eyes, wanders past the linden tree, and the journey continues:

Highlight 3: Crow

Now we are quite far along on our journey. The lyrical subject becomes less and less sane. Here it addresses a crow (a symbol of death) directly and demands of it “loyalty to the grave.” Schubert translates the crow’s fluttering musically with small, rapid movements in the piano:

Highlight 4: The Lyreman

The last song of the cycle is for me one of the most stirring songs I know, despite (or perhaps because of) the sparse musical means. It gives me goose bumps every time. The lyrical subject sees an old lyreman, standing barefoot on the ice, spinning his lyre. Schubert’s Winterreise ends with the two hopeless questions “Strange old man, shall I go with you?” and “Will you spin your lyre to my songs?”

3 Questions and Answers about Schubert's Winterreise

Question 1: What is the content of Winterreise?

At the center of Schubert’s Winterreise is a young man who has just been rejected by his lover. He therefore leaves the city to which he has “moved in as a stranger” and is now also “moving out as a stranger” again (No. 1). It is winter and the young man wanders through snow, cold and darkness. The entire Winterreise can be seen as a continuous descent (which, interestingly, is quite similar to Mozart’s Don Giovanni). At the end, the young man meets the Lyreman (death?) – an eerie ending.

Question 2: Who wrote the text to Winterreise?

The text to Winterreise was written by Johann Ludwig Wilhelm Müller (1794–1827), a German poet and writer and contemporary of Franz Schubert. Schubert and Müller probably never met in person; it cannot even be proven that Müller knew Schubert’s setting of his lyrics.

Question 3: What does the expression "frozen tears" symbolize?

The third song of Winterreise is entitled “Frozen Tears.” The expression symbolizes the isolation and despair of the Wanderer, who is at the center of Winterreise: his tears emerge “glowing hot” from within him, but then become ice themselves instead of melting the ice.

2 Recommended Recordings of Schubert's Winterreise

Recording 1: Ian Bostridge, Saskia Giorgini (live, 2016)

Tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Saskia Giorgini are terrific (and well-informed) Schubert interpreters. They succeed here in something that is crucial to a convincing interpretation of Winterreise: they don’t play side by side, but blend into a single entity. The result is one of the most moving Winterreise performances I know:

Recording 2: Jonas Kaufmann, Helmut Deutsch (live, 2004)

Here two stars of their field make music together: Jonas Kaufmann sings and Helmut Deutsch plays the piano. This recording has become a classic:

1 Quote about Schubert's Winterreise

Strange old man, shall I go with you? Will you spin your lyre to my songs?

The end of Winterreise

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