The protagonist of Thomas Mann's great novel, The Magic Mountain (1924), Hans Castorp, goes into battle, and almost certainly his death, at the end of the book singing 'Der Lindenbaum' from Schubert's song cycle, Winterreise:
The song meant a great deal to him, a whole world ... His fate might have been different if his disposition had not been so highly susceptible to the charms of the emotional sphere, to the universal state of mind that this song epitomized so intensely, so mysteriously ... what questions did he ask himself ... about the ultimate legitimacy of his love for this enchanting song and its world? What was this world that stood behind it, which his intuitive scruples told him was a world of forbidden love? It was death.
As tenor Ian Bostridge eloquently expresses it, Schubert's winter journey 'becomes an axis between the two Freudian poles, Eros and Thanatos, love and death; an education in renunciation, in reconciliation with the inevitable.'
This greatest of all song cycles is a setting of poems by Wilhelm Müller who, more than many poets of the time, desired musical setting of his verse: 'I can neither play nor sing, yet when I write verses, I sing and play after all .... my songs lead but a half life, a paper existence of black-and-white, until music breathes life into them, or at least calls it forth and awakens it if it is already dormant in them.' Schubert came upon twelve of these poems in 1827 and immediately set them to music. Müller then published a twenty-four-poem version; Schubert kept the order of the first twelve, adding the rest in a slightly different sequence.
While there is a sense of a relentless trajectory in the poems, there is not much of a linear narrative, although the skeleton of a story of rejection and the aimless wandering of the increasingly anguished protagonist to a possible death is present. A feeling of dislocation emerges where fragmentation becomes the dominant feature. Like many of the works of Samuel Beckett – who was a great admirer of Winterreise – this sense of dislocation becomes increasingly prominent as the end nears. However, Schubert's genius lies in his ability to counteract this fragmentation through his use of key relationships and more importantly, subtle motivic links. The circularity of the journey – the word 'cycle' is telling – is established in the opening song with its relentless trudging figure in the piano; it is as if there is no beginning or ending.
Through the accounts of his friends, it is apparent that Schubert was deeply depressed during the composition of Winterreise. Suffering from the final stages of syphilis, he must have realised that he had not long to live. His friend, Joseph Von Spaun, describes the first performance of the songs by Schubert himself who invited his friends: 'Come to Schober's today and I will play you a cycle of terrifying songs; they have affected me more than has ever been the case with any other songs.' Spaun continues: 'He then, with a voice full of feeling, sang the entire Winterreise for us. We were altogether dumbfounded by the sombre mood of these songs, and Schober said that one song only, "Der Lindenbaum", had pleased him. Thereupon Schubert leaped up and replied: "These songs please me more than all the rest, and in time they will please you as well."'
Despite the myth that Schubert was an unrecognised genius, the reality is that his music was prominent on Viennese concert programs and the magnitude of the cycle was soon apprehended by many of his contemporaries. Benjamin Britten, together with Peter Pears, both outstanding interpreters of the cycle, commented that there is 'so little on the page', suggesting the challenge for the performers to bring the necessary imagination. Indeed, many of Schubert's songs have a transparency in the piano writing and vocal line that demands much of the performers.
The work lends itself to a variety of forms of presentation in addition to the 'traditional' format of singer and pianist in evening dress, alone on a bare stage. It has been choreographed as a ballet, turned into a filmed monodrama, and presented as a mash-up of the poems and prose of Samuel Beckett. There is even a mesmerising version for voice and actual hurdy-gurdy – the instrument played by an ambiguous figure in the final song. Perhaps the most intriguing adaptation is that by the modernist German composer and conductor, Hans Zender, for singer and full orchestra, which uses the Schubert cycle as the basis for the exploration of a surreal sound world through which the traveller journeys, encountering a wide variety of bizarre incidents. Unlike most of the other versions, Zender frequently distorts the vocal line, including much repetition and shouted declamation and many extraneous sound effects.
The performance at City Recital Hall is in the traditional mode with singer and pianist on a bare stage, backed by a screen covered with pieces of paper onto which a series of animated images are projected. It is a collaboration between German baritone, Matthias Goerne, Austrian pianist, Markus Hinterhäuser, and South African artist, William Kentridge, already experienced in a series of world-wide performances. Goerne is one of the best contemporary Lieder singers and brings an expressively dark and often anguished baritone to the work. He possesses a voice with a wide range of dynamics and colours, including a remarkable ability to float high-lying phrases, the hallmark of the consummate Lieder singer. His exemplary diction conveys the despair at the heart of the work, and his presence – he appears as a physically unremarkable Everyman – is restrained, but all the more expressive when limited movement is employed. Sometimes crouching in the bay of the piano, at other times fearfully watching the screen, he manages to maintain the audience's focus despite the images constantly unfolding behind him. His singing of 'Das Wirtshaus' near the end was stunning – the glacial tempo and masterful vocal control suggested time suspended – a magical moment in a thrilling performance.
Hinterhäuser is a superb collaborator; at times his body language seems to mirror the emotional trajectory of the cycle, no mean feat from the piano! Both take some liberties with the music which might alarm the purists, but frequent dramatic pauses and expressive moulding of the musical line are part of a clear overall conception of the musical arc of the work. Both capture the essential Byronic mystery of the protagonist – Müller had translated Byron into German – but also the macabre aspects of the cycle – he was also heavily influenced by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
Kentridge is a highly-regarded figure in the art world and is equally celebrated as a designer and director of operas. His production of Alban Berg's Lulu, currently running at New York's Metropolitan Opera, has garnered lavish praise. He has described how affected he was listening to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's performance of Winterreise on record, but this project was never intended as a dramatic depiction of whatever narrative exists in the cycle. The images are seldom directly linked to the content of the songs, yet their accumulative effect is to amplify the overall meaning and emotional impact of the cycle.
These animated images perform a complex role. From the outset Kentridge links the police state of the Metternich Vienna of Schubert with Apartheid-era Johannesburg, his home. Two recurring images are of a walking man – the protagonist of the cycle – and an African woman. Kaleidoscopically weaving through the performance are fragments of text and maps, but also frequent images of the bleak South African Highveld with its mine dumps and mine headgear. Schubert's linden tree becomes an unmistakably African tree in all its starkness. Towards the end, fragmentary films of World War I suggest a desolate future. These transpositions from Vienna to Johannesburg are brilliantly effective; occasionally there is so much for the eye to comprehend that one longs for a little more time to take them in, so visually arresting are they. One might see them as a correlative of the interlinked musical motifs that Schubert employs throughout.
The final image of a series of African women carrying bundles on their heads is highly evocative and moving, once again taking the work back to Kentridge's African roots, but also effectively establishing the universality of the work. Schubert did something similar with the omission of the definite article 'the' from the original title, 'The Winter Journey': this is anyone's, and everyone's, journey.
The fact that traditionally there is no encore after a performance of Winterreise suggests an almost religious element to the experience. The usual expectations of vocal virtuosity and musicality in classical singing seem suspended in such a work – as in the passions of Bach. Of course one admires the musicality and technical prowess of both singer and pianist, but this does not seem central to the essence of the actual experience of the work. Müller's poems, Schubert's music, and Kentridge's images mesmerically draw us into the psyche and fate of the protagonist, his anguish and despair mirroring our own. Both performers and audience have undergone a harrowing emotional journey and the circularity implied in the term 'cycle' suggests little sense of closure: the journey for the protagonist, and the audience, continues – endless, meaningless motion is all. Many in the audience wished that this performance could have commenced once more.
Winterreise, by Schubert, with animation by William Kentridge, featuring baritone Matthias Goerne and pianist Markus Hinterhäuse. Presented by Sydney Festival, City Recital Hall, 7 and 8 January, 2016. Performance attended: 7 January.
Arts Update is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation.