Ian Bostridge’s study as enigmatic as Schubert’s masterpiece

WHEN it comes to art songs in German, there is a special kind of prejudice that afflicts us.

I have seen a prominent cultural commentator curl his upper lip as he spat out the words “German lieder” and, on another occasion, audience members near to revolt when they realised Thomas Hampson would be singing Mahler that evening, not Stephen Foster.

Whether it is misunderstanding or prejudice that keeps people away from lieder, and particularly from the masterpiece that is Schubert’s Winter Journey, or Winterreise, here is a book to set them straight. For those of us who are already obsessed with the work, it provides an irresistible treat.

This cycle of 24 songs, to poems by Wilhelm Müller, can be a s hattering experience for singer, pianist and audience.

It makes fierce demands on the performers as it charts a harrowing journey, an outcast’s progress through an icy landscape to a desolate end. (Or no end at all: Samuel Beckett loved and played Schubert; his tramps walk the same nameless roads.)

The last song seems almost to abandon music itself, as the outcast sees a kindred spirit in a barefoot beggar, a musician of the very lowliest kind, cranking a hurdy-gurdy in the vain hope of a coin from a passer-by. 

After 70 minutes of dazzling musical invention, Schubert dares to write only the bare bones of a song, a repetitious ditty — deliberately “poor music” or “anti-music”, to evoke this poor creature grinding away.

In concert the effect is sublime: the singer, having given his all, seems physically to embody the meaning of what we have heard: the draining away of all artifice and all false hope.

Ian Bostridge writes with some authority, as a distinguished tenor who has performed Winterreise more than 100 times.

His book is not an analysis of Winterreise, but an exploration around it: probing not just the historical context, but the connections to be made with art, literature, psychology, science, and politics. 

Bostridge delves not into the theory of the music but into the very life of it, as it reverberates in the lives of its listeners from Schubert’s day to our own.

Each of the 24 songs has a chapter to itself and the text wanders as the songs do, the many topics allowed to arise as they are suggested by the words and music.

That Schubert’s diagnosis of syphilis lay behind the despair of his last years is well known, and it is movingly discussed here. 

More surprising to this reader at least is the exploration of the composer’s politics: the resentment of Metternich’s repressive regime in Austria, encoded in some of Müller’s verses and bestowing on his wanderer protagonist something of the political outcast, no longer at home in his own country.

At the devastating close of Winterreise, the caricature of the hurdy-gurdy man threatens to pare away the artist’s last consolation: the redeeming power of truth and beauty. The cosy assumption, that the truth of art will set us free, is left by Schubert as an unanswered question.

Bostridge poses the question anew: “Is Winterreise, dangerously, one tiny part of the scaffolding of our complacency? 

“If the point of philosophy is not only to interpret the world but to change it, what is the point of art?” 

The answer, from both composer and author, is implicit.

Schubert went on working almost to the end, correcting proofs of Winterreise on his deathbed — and Bostridge (who is 51 and in fine voice) goes on singing and writing.

Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession

Ian Bostridge

Faber & Faber, €26.30


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