Playwright, performer, and composer Rick Burkhardt is one of the Obie Award–winning creators—along with Dave Malloy and Alec Duffy—of Three Pianos, a whimsical ode to Franz Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle. He's also the host of the Schubertiade Remix at Mostly Mozart this summer. In this playlist, Burkhardt embraces his Schubert superfandom by peeling back the layers of the Wanderer’s psychological state in five songs from Winterreise, each presented in two very different interpretations.
“Auf dem Flusse”
Take 1: Christian Gerhaher, baritone; Gerold Huber, piano
Take 2: Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano; James Levine, piano
One thing that is really fun about Winterreise is that it takes Romanticism and turns it on its head. You have this character, the Wanderer, who is doing exactly what a Romantic poet is supposed to do: trying to find his emotions reflected in nature. But nothing’s right about the nature he’s encountering. The Wanderer wonders: “Is this frozen river actually a good reflection of my mood?” That devolves into: “Do I even have emotions?” Samuel Beckett loved this cycle! The Romantic composers had written plenty of river music, and in the piano the river is always represented as ripples. So, it’s really striking in this song, which is called “At the River,” that the first thing you hear is “Bonk. Clink. Bonk. Clink.” It has a lot of rests. It’s not loud or soft. It’s as mundane as possible. You keep waiting for it to do something, but Schubert just keeps this slow alternation between the hands going for the entire song. He does throw in some surprising chord changes, but even they end up emphasizing just how little motion there is everywhere else. Then, the singer notices, “All I see is ice, but maybe underneath the ice, the river is still flowing.” Schubert keeps the right hand playing single chords, but he gives the left hand this little rising melody. It’s a literal depiction of the river stirring under the ice. By the end, Schubert has removed most notes of the chord leaving just octaves, a shell. The song starts with almost nothing and it builds a little, but by the end we aren’t sure if it’s more or less than we started with. And that’s exactly what the Wanderer is thinking. "Was seeking my emotions in nature a good idea?" Inconclusive!
“Der greise Kopf”
Take 1: Matthias Goerne, baritone; Christoph Eschenbach, piano
Take 2: Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano; Julius Drake, piano
The Wanderer discovers a gray hair and thinks, “Wonderful! I’m going to die soon!” But it’s just frost and he is still far from the grave. There are several clever things that Schubert does in this song. One is that he personifies this gray hair with a single strand of melody. The singer sings a line and the piano responds with a short, descending line, like a call-and-response in a blues song. The second thing is that Schubert figured out that we have a character who has lost all perspective on what’s good and what’s bad, so he keeps changing from major to minor without any warning. The third is that the song is set in the form of a recitative. I don’t know enough about Schubert to say this with certainty, but I feel he’s being satirical. He’s allowing us to experience this weird internal monologue as if the Wanderer is delivering it in an opera. You get grand gestures, where he’s saying “Oh no! I am still a young man!” He’s trying to tell this sad story and the piano keeps commenting, “Maybe you’re overdoing it a bit. You’ve chosen to make this event into drama, but actually what you're saying is that nothing happened.” The last thing is on the repeated line “How far it still is to the grave.” Schubert takes out all the harmonies and plays in unison with the singer’s downward melody. And then, on the word “grave” (“bahre” in German) he gives the singer this ornamentation that the piano doesn’t have so they make this ugly dissonance. Even within the unison there’s something wrong. It’s disconcerting, and it should be, because he wants the grave. What’s up with that?!
Take 1: Roman Trekel, baritone; Oliver Pohl, piano
Take 2: Peter Schreier, tenor; Sviatoslav Richter, piano
The Wanderer goes into a village. Everyone’s asleep and he thinks about these sleeping people with some contempt. They are dreaming of shit that they’re never going to have and in the morning, it will all have evaporated. “Why should I waste time with sleeping people?” is the last line of the song. The first line of the song, though, is “The dogs are barking.” He wanders into this town and the only things awake are the dogs. So, two dramatic things are going on in here. He’s singing how he is done with dreams and sleep, but the melody is clearly a lullaby. What he is saying is not true. He is, in fact, envious of the sleepers. The second thing that’s special about the song is that Schubert could’ve written a beautiful piano part to go with the lullaby, but he didn’t. The piano rumbles—the sound of the dogs snarling at him as he walks by. This song is a vivid depiction of a person trying to find peace in a hostile environment. It's one of the amazing things that music can do. It can take words and pull out new meaning. That little detail in the poem—“The dogs are barking”—could’ve easily been missed when reading it, but the music makes it a constant presence. Schubert’s poet friends would give him a poem and then they’d go to the Schubertiade and listen to his song setting of their poem and learn from the music what the poem was about. He clearly saw that part of his job was to get under these poems and bring out something that you wouldn’t necessarily see, even if you were the writer.
Take 1: Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; Helmut Deutsch, piano
Take 2: Mark Padmore, tenor; Paul Lewis, piano
The title means “deception.” The Wanderer sees a light in the forest and decides he’s going to follow it even though he knows that it's a bad idea. At this point, we’re late in the song cycle and he’s pretty much given up on having a goal. He’s got no place to go and he can just enjoy getting lost in the woods. It’s basically a song in celebration of getting lost. So, here’s what Schubert does: he completely accepts the Wanderer’s positive attitude. This is one of the most cheerful sounding songs in the cycle. It sounds like a folk tune. The poem is written in these very simple rhyming couplets, so Schubert sets these running couplets as answer-question lines. It’s as simple as tonal music gets. Then he makes a bridge and the bridge keeps the same general rhythm, but it’s three lines long so when he returns to the top, even though it’s the exact same melody as before, it no longer fits with the rhyming couplets. It’s the perfect musical depiction of getting lost and it’s so funny. You get to that place where it’s supposed to rhyme and it doesn’t. I wonder how Schubert came up with that. Did he just stay up all night and then at four in the morning go, “Oh, that’s it. I got it!”?
Take 1: Ian Bostridge, tenor; Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
Take 2: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Gerald Moore, piano
Our final song is “Der Wegweiser,” or “Signpost.” The Wanderer comes to a crossroads and must decide whether to go left or right. Likewise, the piano part goes back and forth between the right hand and the left hand throughout the entire song. The Wanderer says, “Well, there are two ways to go, but I know that neither one of them is the right way. It doesn’t matter which I choose.” Schubert has a very beautiful way of letting the Wanderer have all these questions, the alternating hands start to feel like a pendulum. It starts to feel like no matter what you do, you’re always swaying back and forth. Then, he has one of my very favorite key changes in the world. It’s been in G minor all the way through and then it modulates into G major, which is easy to do, and then he builds up to a B-7 chord, which sounds like it should be the threshold to a new key. But we just end up back in G minor. So right at the point where someone is on the threshold of deciding to go somewhere else, he goes, nope, back to the beginning. We have this strong feeling that we should have progressed, but as the Wanderer expresses, there’s only one path before us and that’s the path from which no one ever comes back. So again, Schubert is finding some strange way to think of this poem and then depicting it as literally as possible in the piano part, creating these textures and sounds that no one has really ever heard before or since.
Listen to the full Spotify list.
About the Curator
Rick Burkhardt is an Obie Award–winning playwright, performer, composer, and songwriter whose original chamber music, theater, and text pieces have been performed in over 40 U.S. cities, as well as in Europe, Mexico, Canada, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand. He is a founding member of the Nonsense Company, a touring experimental music/theater trio, and songwriter/accordionist for the Prince Myshkins, a political cabaret/folk duo. In 2011 he was listed as an "Off-Off-Broadway Innovator to Watch" by Time Out New York.