Posted by Richard on  UTC 2015-12-31 16:10

Entering the tunnel

For the sheer quantity and depth of the misery within it I know of no collection of verse in English or German that can compete with Wilhelm Müller's Die Winterreise.

In English literature we might think of some of the poems that John Clare (1793-1864) wrote, in German literature the poems of Gottfried Benn (1886-1956). Although these works are deeply depressive, none contains anything like the brutal rejection felt by the protagonist of Die Winterreise and his profound hatred for 'people' – that is, the 'normal' members of 'normal' society.

In setting this collection of verse to music Schubert must also take the honours for the most continuously miserable piece of classical music in existence. How could it be otherwise? Even the great requiems all contain high points that elevate and console, their audiences leave the performance uplifted. The music of Die Winterreise, perfectly in concert with Müller's bleak text, has none of these high points, it is uniformly, miserably black.

Happy, socially integrated people listen to Die Winterreise and are filled with proxy sadness that is soon dispelled when their cheerful lives embrace them once again after the performance. Our hope is that the already depressed who encounter Die Winterreise can experience it as being the sort of shared misery they might have to endure in a group-therapy session in a mental health clinic. The alternative being an immediate exit from the unbearable pain of this cruel world using whatever means come to hand.

We are all hard-faced realists on this blog. As we have mentioned before, our motto for textual analysis is to read what is in the text and not read what we think is in it. For the purposes of this textual analysis of Die Winterreise we add a second principle: we must reject the piety with which this work is treated, particularly in respect of its musical manifestation. This joint work of Wilhelm Müller and Franz Schubert is simply too important and too complex to be treated as a railing against which admirers can prop their bunches of flowers and teddybears.

In order to clear up some of the misunderstandings about the work we are therefore going to carry out a textual analysis of the poems of Die Winterreise (Op. 89, D. 911), words by the German poet Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827)[1] and music by the Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828). Müller's poems were published in 1823 and Schubert set them to music in 1827 (the year in which Müller died and the year before Schubert himself would die).

This analysis is not a musical analysis – there are plenty of those around – but a textual analysis. Because the original text is in German it is obviously difficult for non-German speakers to appreciate the highs and lows of Müller's text. We are therefore going to look at Müller's text as poetry and particularly the larger structure that makes it a poetic cycle and thus, in Schubert's hands, a song-cycle.


  1. ^ As we noted in our discussion of Die schöne Müllerin, if you are interested in Müller's work you will need a good understanding of German, strong nerves and plenty of time on your hands: he was one of the most obsessive scribblers of the 19th century in Germany. By the time of his death at only thirty-three he had scribbled around 350 closely printed pages of poetry. The quality of his work is nowadays generally considered to be mediocre. His star had already begun to set before his death in 1827.
    A six volume set of Müller's work, diaries and letters was published with due piety in 1994, the 200th anniversary of his birth, together with a few spin-off biographies based on his link to the Schubert cycles. There is also an International Wilhelm Müller Society that twitches into life about once a year. Otherwise, that's it: he would have sunk completely without trace were it not for Schubert.

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