Schubert's Winterreise, the song cycle for singer and piano composed in 1827, is a beloved artwork, one of the iconic landmarks in the western cultural landscape and often described as the greatest song cycle ever written. A perfect meeting of the music of Schubert, whose genius spans the centuries and continues to have a deeply emotional impact, and the poetry of Wilhelm Müller, considered by his contemporaries a "German Byron." Its richness, complexity, and opacity are reflected in the many hundreds of performances, recordings, books, and explorations around the work, which continues to fire the imagination and require attention.
Composed in two parts, each containing 12 songs, Winterreise ("Winter’s Journey") traces the intense, increasingly maniacal despair of a young man departing for unknown reasons from an unwelcoming house, traveling alone through a sparse, snowbound, sometimes threatening, sometimes indifferent winter landscape, lamenting lost love. The self-absorbed and youthfully emphatic romantic angst is transformed during the course of the journey into a deeper, darker reflection on the human condition, the meaning of existence, and the consolation of death.
Hans Zender's "composed interpretation" of Winterreise, first performed in 1993, is an extraordinary work in its own right, as well as a bleak and brilliant reflection and refraction of the original. A composer, conductor, and prolific writer on music and the philosophy of music, Zender explores and explodes ideas of authenticity and interpretation, historical accuracy, and the relationship between the composer, performer, and listener.
Winterreise is one of Zender's innovative "composed interpretations," which create a new kind of reflection on music history. The orchestra in Zender's Winterreise takes us from Schubert's Vienna, through Mahler, the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg and Berg, to Weill's Berlin, and on to the present day. Schubert's Winterreise is a work shockingly ahead of its time, with a strongly expressionist flavor and prescient hints at the progress of music into the 20th century. Zender's interpretation brings out and clarifies these extraordinary aspects and creates sonic associations for a modern audience. The rich cabaret feel draws on elements already there, and allows for a reflection on the piece itself—it is a work of art about a work of art.
In his Winterreise, Zender brings into question the elusive ideals of authenticity and historical accuracy in musical performance. His views on the challenges of musical interpretation can also be applied to the art of text translation. Accurately translating Die Winterreise remains an uncertain task, a balance between clarity and suggestiveness. The effect of language is multilayered—drawing on powers of association, culture, history, setting, and sound—making poetic translation near impossible. According to Robert Frost, "poetry is that which is lost in translation."
The language employed by Müller in these poems is deceptively simple, hiding the skill and artistry with which they were created. Disliking artifice, or flashy poetic techniques and sophistication, Müller favors a direct, almost informal approach. Here the sing-song, sometimes colloquial flavor of Müller's verses, combined with the darkness of his material, creates an extraordinary and very personal effect. When translated again by Schubert into music of extraordinary imagination and depth, this language brings us immediately, and profoundly, into the mind of the protagonist.
Zender's interpretation...creates sonic associations for a modern audience.
Winterreise is a work inseparable from the performer. Ian Bostridge has been performing Schubert's Winterreise for nearly 30 years. When a single work, or a particular composer or playwright, becomes central to a performer's creative life for such an extended time, an extraordinary relationship develops. Since the advent of recording and film, it is also a journey that can be traced and witnessed. The confrontation between the young performer and the performer with 30 years of performance experience is a mirror for our own pathways and reflections. Our relationship with our younger selves is brought to light, and a consideration of our connection with a particular work, which changes so significantly over time.
The wanderer in Winter's Journey is a young man, experiencing emotion with the intensity of youth. Franz Schubert and Wilhelm Müller themselves were both dead by the age of 32. And yet Winterreise is often described as an artwork that can only really be understood by an older person. The confrontation between a performer at age 25 and at age 50 creates a dialogue between these two people—the same, and yet completely transformed. It is a work written by, and about, a young man, but one that speaks deeply to an older one. It recalls inevitably one of Schubert's most overwhelming songs, "Der Doppelgänger," written in the year of his death: "Upon seeing his face, I am terrified, The moon shows me my own form! O you Doppelgänger! You pale comrade! Why do you mimic the pain of my love?"
In this performance there are three protagonists—tenor, orchestra, and film. Projection is a theater tool unlike any other, and has been explored on stage since it first emerged in experimental and multimedia performances throughout the last century. The camera is a magical tool, not limited by the laws of nature, physics, or time. Once captured on film, an image, or a person, is frozen in motion for as long as the medium survives. What is the relationship between a person now and their frozen image of 30 years ago? The projected image, created purely by light and shadow, is a fleeting glimpse of something that exists only in memory, and will never exist again.
The passage of time on our features and faculties is a transformation which is almost imperceptible until seen in fast forward, or compared in leaps of time. Other than the obvious physical changes, there is something else, perhaps less easy to assess—a change in gaze, created by the experience of the life in between. Whether we look back with nostalgia, jealousy, embarrassment, curiosity, horror, or fondness, this is a confrontation which forces an appraisal and a taking of stock. Time collapses and a vision of our own journey is brought into sharp focus in a very shallow depth of field. What is lost, what is gained, and what remains, is at the heart of this revelation.
The winter landscape creates an interplay between black and white, darkness and light, order and disorder, attraction and threat.
The journey of the wanderer in Müller's poem is as much a psychic geography as it is a literal landscape. But the sound world of Zender's Winterreise conjures an array of visual allusions and suggestions—the stagecraft of expressionist theater and early experimental theater designers, artists who were avoiding both naturalism and ornamentation in favor of minimal stage gestures and the drama of darkness and light. The strong cabaret flavor of the sound world and the isolation of the performer also come into play—allusions to the stark mountainous landscapes of Caspar Friedrich, the rooftops of Dr. Caligari, the mechanical structures of Moholy Nagy, the open platforms of Erwin Piscator, the dark drama of Robert Edmond Jones, the temporary stages of pop-up Weimar cabaret entertainments, and the simple, single stage gestures of Samuel Beckett.
The relationship between Beckett and Schubert's Winterreise is direct and much explored. Beckett's intense relationship with Schubert's music, and specifically Winterreise, is well documented, and he is often regarded as a kinship, a friend in suffering. For a contemporary audience it is impossible not to see, achronologically, the shadow of Beckett's vision in Winter's Journey—in the internal monologue, the dark humor, and the ambivalent confrontation with death.
A real winter landscape is both panoramic and microscopic—expansive vistas of blinding whiteness in wide view, and the tiny, veinlike structures of ice crystals and snowflakes in ultra close-up. The landscape provides both a mirror and a setting, a background and a foreground. Winter is naturally monochrome, dominated by fields of white and murky shadows, radiant beauty and real danger. In projected imagery, the winter landscape creates an interplay between black and white, darkness and light, order and disorder, attraction and threat. The winter landscape in Winterreise is timeless and non-specific, a state of mind more than a place or season, an imaginary landscape of memory or illusion.
In his reimagining of Winterreise, Zender takes us through musical references that span the period from the earliest days of experimental photography, through the advent of film to the emergence of the digital world. The impact of the camera and of film can be traced across all art forms, including music, from ideas of arrested movement in a freeze frame to the repeated image; new concepts of fast forward and rewind, slow motion, zoom, close up, and point-of-view; black-and-white images and the revelation of a monochrome world. Time is no longer linear, or continuous, and the spectator is no longer merely in front of the subject. Film can create both closeness and distance, it can be literal or abstract, it can suggest a deeper truth, or a convincing illusion. True to its original nickname, the camera is a dark mirror.
—Copyright © 2016 by Netia Jones. Reprinted with kind permission.
Netia Jones is a director, designer, and filmmaker in opera, theater, and classical music. She is the director of Lightmap, a mixed-media creative studio based in London. Recent projects include A Midsummer Night's Dream (Aldeburgh Festival), Erwartung (Bergen International Festival/Bergen National Opera), Atthis by Georg Friedrich Haas (Royal Opera House, Covent Garden), Alice in Wonderland by Unsuk Chin (Los Angeles Philharmonic, Barbican), Les Illuminations with Daniel Harding for the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and Curlew River (Lincoln Center, CalPerformances, Carolina Performing Arts, and Barbican). In 2016 she directed and designed a special stage installation and video projections for The Illuminated Heart, which opened the 50th anniversary of the Mostly Mozart Festival.