The Winterreise Project

A reflective performance course for amateur singers and pianists, and for music-lovers.

Why Winterreise?

Franz Schubert wrote the vast majority of his songs for voice and piano for amateur musicians, and it was amateurs singers and pianists – both men and women – who were the principal performers of his more than 400 songs during the composer’s lifetime and in the years following his death. Today, Schubert’s songs are performed in public almost exclusively by professionals, separating these works from the collaborative, informal – and often very convivial – amateur settings for which they were originally conceived.

Schubert’s 24-song cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey) is one of his more extended works, and professional singers and pianists today typically perform the entire cycle in a single performance. In Schubert’s time, however, it was common for amateur musicians to perform only one, or at at the most a small group of the songs, in an evening salon gathering. It was not uncommon for one singer-pianist duo to sing one or two songs before another pair took over, or for singers and pianists to change scores – choosing their preferred keys from the available published options – in a single concert to suit their particular voice or ability at the piano.

The Winterreise Project reclaims Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise for the non-professional musician, while also offering amateur singers and pianists access to the sort of in-depth study of the songs normally reserved only for aspiring professionals. Singers, pianists, and auditor participants on our course will work together on small groups of the songs, just as they would have done during Schubert’s lifetime. Our project will finish with a presentation of the complete 24-song cycle in which each singer and pianist will contribute between one and three songs to the final joint concert.

What did our students receive?

Coached throughout the project by Artistic Director singer Kathryn Whitney and Director of collaborative piano Anna Cal, singers and pianists on the Winterreise Project received over 30 hours of instruction over a 13-week period, including private studio coachings, coachings in collaborative performance as a singer-pianist duo, song performance masterclasses, and workshops on German diction and poetry performance. Kathryn and Anna also held open rehearsals (they were preparing their own experimental performance of the cycle), during which students could observe and collaborate with professionals in preparation on the same material they are studying, as an integral part of the project.

In addition to their study of the full cycle of 24 songs, each singer and pianist received intensive personal coaching on the performance in interpretation of up to 4 songs. Each student performed between one and three songs in the joint student concert of the full cycle at the end of project.

Auditor participants were an important part of the Winterreise Project. They attended ensemble sessions and rehearsals, as well as masterclasses, workshops, and performances. They assisted the project by providing an interested and supportive audience for our performers, supporting them through their listening and through the feedback and commentary they offered their fellow students and faculty.

How did the course finish?

The Winterreise Project ended with two complete performances of the song cycle:

1. On Sunday 31 May, the student singers and pianists presented a performance of Schubert’s original 1828 version of the full song cycle Winterreise. (See Final Concert above for videos of their performance.)

2. On Sunday 7 June, instructors Kathryn Whitney and Anna Cal performed an experimental version of the cycle with the songs reordered to reflect the literary structure of Müller’s original set of poems from 1824.

Where did the performances take place?

Both performances took place in the acoustically superb Wingate Studio, the stunning new rehearsal and performance space within the Baumann Centre for Pacific Opera Victoria, located at 925 Balmoral Road, V8T 1A7.

Project dates: March 15 to 7 June 2015

What was the time commitment, and what did you do week to week?

The Winterreise Project met mostly on weekends in a single session on a Saturday or Sunday for 2 or 3 hours. Additionally, students saw Kathryn and/or Anna during the week for solo and duo studio coachings organised at times to suit mutual timetables, and they attended a series of open rehearsals given by the instructors.

Did students have to memorize loads of difficult German poetry?

Singers who perform from memory often feel more fluent, and we would encourage singers to learn the text of their song well and to perform from memory if that is their goal. However, performance from memory can be very stressful, and this stress takes away completely from the pleasure of song performance in significant ways for both performers and listeners. It was very rare for performances outside the opera house to be given from memory during Schubert’s lifetime, so an authentic performance for amateur musicians will be one that at least in some way refers to a score. Singers on the Winterreise Project performed their music in German, which is a beautiful and wonderfully colourful language to sing. Decisions regarding whether or not to perform from memory were made by each singer individually in consultation with the instructors.

Who were your participants?

Anyone who has a love for or an interest in song was welcome to join us on the Winterreise Project. Our goal was to provide a supportive environment for musicians and music-lovers to come together to learn about, have a go at singing or playing, and be inspired and challenged by these songs, both for their musical qualities and for their evocative and thoughtful poetry.

Singers and pianists with little to no experience of performing German songs were very welcome. Remembering that the music was originally written for amateurs, and that Schubert’s scores were widely distributed and played regularly in humble sitting rooms by non-professionals during his lifetime, it will come as no surprise to find many songs within the 24-song set that can be easily tackled by inexperienced pianists or singers.

In other places, Schubert flexes his interpretive and technical muscles significantly more, offering songs with more provocative pianistic and vocal challenges that are very stimulating to the more advanced musician.

In short, there is something in Winterreise for everyone, and the Winterreise Project as a course is designed to reflect this.

Singers and pianists who wished to work on just one simple piece on the course were as welcome as those who join us to rise to the challenge of perfecting four of the most technically difficult songs. Every pianist and singer was welcome, and each will work closely with the instructors to select the music that best fits his or her interests and abilities.

Auditor participants came from many background. Some wished to join us to learn about Schubert or to hear this beautiful song cycle workshopped in depth here in Victoria. Others came to share their already considerable knowledge about the composer and the music we were be studying. All were welcome, and each made as important a contribution as did the friends and colleagues who gathered in Schubert’s original salons.

We hope you will enjoy looking through this site, which outlines our intensive work on Schubert’s wonderful song cycle.