I RECENTLY WENT to see Alan Cumming give a lecture about his career. He came out on the stage, took his place at the podium, and looked directly at the audience. “People always ask about my process …” My heart sank; oh no, it was going to be one of those lectures. He continued, “I do not have a process. I am not a cheese.”
Phew. It’s always a challenge when actors talk about their “process.” Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn. I want to enjoy an actor’s performance, not their backstory. And if they have to write something, I’d rather they share the gossip, the murderous rivalries, who was sleeping with whom.
I opened Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession by Ian Bostridge, the great English tenor, with trepidation. If there is anything worse than an actor talking about his method, it’s an obsessed tenor talking about his pallet, his breath control, or how ill he is, how he barely made the high “C” that fateful night in Lisbon.
But Bostridge’s book is a little miracle. “Little” only because it was published in a compact form and at first glance looks like the Gideons had something to do with it. The book, though, is a lavishly produced work of art, complete with gorgeous lithographs printed on thick, glossy paper.
A compressed but monumental work about a monumental piece of art, Bostridge discusses the 24 songs that make up the pinnacle of German lieder (or art song), Schubert’s masterpiece of masterpieces (and he wrote many!), Winterreise. Bostridge, who happened to get his degree in history and not music, as he often reminds us, explores in muscular prose (more like a baritone than tenor?) the literary, historical, and, most important, the postmodern, psychological themes that weave through Winterreise. Even though Bostridge has performed the 75-minute song cycle over 100 times, his compelling book has very little to do with actual performance and, thankfully, very little about process.
Schubert, setting poems by Wilhelm Müller, completed the work not long before he died of syphilis (or more than likely, from the mercury poisoning that was the treatment) at 31, and was proofing the final version on his deathbed. As Schubert wrote to a friend:
Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and who in sheer despair over this ever makes things worse and worse, instead of better; imagine a man, I say, whose most brilliant hopes have perished, to whom the happiness of love and friendship have nothing to offer but pain.
That is the prevailing mood of Winterreise.
The songs tell a story of an “everyman,” rejected by a lover, who leaves the village where he is no longer welcome and journeys through an unyielding winter landscape to his death — a real death or merely a spiritual one, the audience is never sure. Throughout the cycle the wanderer questions his identity, his existence, and the meaning of life, and does so powerfully enough that the cycle has been performed for over 250 years.
Of course the challenge in writing a book like this, one dedicated to a musical masterpiece, is deciding who the audience is supposed to be. The musical scholar? The casual musician? The uninformed listeners who want to learn more? None of the above?
Bostridge’s book is not a technical guide to the music, and happily I believe this book is for anyone and everyone who is interested in music and certainly anyone who has ever been moved by Winterreise. It can serve as the ultimate collection of liner notes for the uninitiated who want to experience it for the first time. All the non-musician has to know is the difference between major and minor.
I am a professional musician, and even without a detailed exploration of the harmonic relationships, the counterpoint, or the vocal nuances, I devoured every page. I know these songs very well, but 90 percent of what Bostridge wrote was completely new to me. Ever the history major, Bostridge explores the time and place — circa 1828 in Vienna, where both Müller and Schubert were working — and the cultural significance of some of the references in the songs: a history of tears (in No. 3 “Frozen Tears”), natural phenomena such as Ignis fatuus (No. 9 “Will-o’-the-Wisp”), and an especially fascinating treatise on the linden tree in German literature — No. 5 “The Linden Tree” being perhaps the most famous song in the cycle. A chapter on “The Crow” explores not only Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings but also the symbolism in Hitchcock’s The Birds. Even as I write, I know this threatens to sound dull, dull, dull, but in Bostridge’s beautiful prose, the entire story comes to life, and I swear I could hear little syphilitic Schubert finishing his famous unfinished symphony in the other room. (As a side note, he was one of the first composers to succeed financially simply as a musician, without patronage, and was quite successful in his day.)
Of course the ultimate test of a book about music (or a book about art for that matter) is if it compels the reader to listen to the described pieces with ears newly opened by the writer. Before each chapter, Bostridge includes the original German text and his own English version. Despite having loved this cycle for years, and owning at least six copies on CD, I felt the need to listen to each song before he started on his exploration to truly get the Schubert in my head, and after each chapter, the exploration done, I had to listen again, a threefold pleasure. Almost each re-listening had an “ah-ha” moment where I thought, “Oh, I never got that before.”
For instance, in No. 10 “Rest,” the avatar gets a momentary reprieve as he finds shelter in an empty hut along the way. Müller specifically calls it eines Köhlers engem Haus, a charcoal burner’s house. For years, I simply assumed it was a worker’s little lean-to, which could have been a farmer’s hut or a shepherd’s abandoned shelter, but Bostridge illuminates the specifics of why a charcoal burner’s hut was chosen with a diatribe on the socioeconomic industrial revolution that leads to a political discourse on the secret society, the Carbonari, which literally means “charcoal burners,” and is “the secret society […] feared by the Hapsburg regime and so much a part of the Italian landscape of the 1820s which Müller had obliquely celebrated.” Who knew! And it has changed my listening.
Throughout the book, Bostridge sites the effect of Winterreise on other writers, including Samuel Beckett, Benjamin Britten, Paul Auster, Thomas Mann, even Bob Dylan, and argues convincingly that this cycle belongs in as rare an artistic pantheon “as the poetry of Shakespeare and Dante, the paintings of Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso, the novels of the Brontë sisters or Marcel Proust.” He explains:
Winter Journey is one of the great feasts of the musical calendar: an austere one, but one almost guaranteed to touch the ineffable as well as the heart. After the last song, “The Hurdy-Gurdy Man,” the silence is palpable, the sort of silence that otherwise only a Bach Passion can summon up.
This is how I felt on the final page of this book.
In addition to Bostridge’s recording accompanied by Julius Drake, I highly recommend perhaps the definitive version by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore, reissued in 1985, and a spiritual new release by Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch. And if you want to see a performance of Bostridge singing Winterreise, the avant-garde director David Alden made a film of it. More Alden than Schubert, but interesting if slightly kookie!