The Winter Journey
Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise – Winter Journey – is a hugely evocative group of songs for voice and piano exploring in detail a young man’s reaction to the pain of unrequited love. Across the one-hour cycle, which sets the 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller titled Die Winterreise, Schubert takes his singer and pianist on an extraordinary journey from the fragile tenderness of first love, through rejection, rage, hopelessness, and defiance, to his final transfiguration through his acceptance of his powerlessness against fate.
The Winter Journey of the title of the piece is both a literal and a symbolic journey. In the first song we learn that the young man has been rejected by his beloved. He believed he had real evidence of affection from her, and her mother had even talked of the promise of marriage, but for reasons unknown to him, the plan – if there ever was a plan – has changed. Standing outside her house on a winter night, he sings good night to her with a mixture of tenderness and torment before fleeing into the countryside with his face set against the lashing of the winter wind.
The remainder of the song cycle, which recounts the journey he makes on foot through the frozen countryside, starts as a simple act of escape from painful memories but soon evolves into an extended odyssey of inner experience. Battling against plunging temperatures, menacing animals, and the oppressive, uncontrollable waves of hope and despair, the young man forges onward through the snow toward the point of exhaustion. Death looms, and is contemplated and seriously considered, but the dormant natural world eventually stirs in its coldness and begins to speak back to the wanderer, who hears truth clarified in the rustling of trees, and in the blazing symbolism of a vision of phantom suns.
The wanderer is never released from heartbreak, but, as his inner suffering becomes increasingly abstract, he is gradually moved to understand, and eventually, to accept the cruelty of his fate. By the last song of the cycle, his transformation from innocence to knowledge through suffering is complete. Arriving in a distant town, his own singing is echoed darkly in the vision of an elderly hurdy-gurdy man, who stands barefoot cranking his instrument with frozen fingers in the empty streets.
‘Strange old man’, the young man asks, Will I come with you? Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?’
Join us in admiring these extraordinary performances of Schubert’s haunting song cycle, Winterreise.
Please also visit the collection of videos we have compiled on the Winterreise Project YouTube channel – and add your own.