Ian Bostridge turns obsession with Schubert’s the Winterreise into fascinating guidebook

The English tenor has been fixated with Schubert's seminal song cycle for decades and has performed them live more than 100 times.
The tenor Ian Bostridge, accompanied by Julius Drake on piano, with whom he has performed the Winterreise several times. Hiroyuki Ito / Getty Images
The tenor Ian Bostridge, accompanied by Julius Drake on piano, with whom he has performed the Winterreise several times. Hiroyuki Ito / Getty Images

In Schubert’s song Die Greise Kopf (The Old Man’s Head), the singer catches sight of himself – can his hair have turned white like an old man’s? As his hair turns back to black he realises he was wrong – the white was only frost that had gathered on it. His reaction: neither joy nor relief. How much longer, he wonders, does he have until the grave?

This is just the sort of bleak, ghostly little revelation that runs through Schubert’s great song cycle the Winterreise (Winter Journey) like a shiver down a spine. Schubert’s 24 songs piece together the journey of a lone voyager through a winter landscape, reflecting as he does on death and a broken heart. The musical ingenuity, great beauty and – despite the bleak tone – delicate charm of these songs have made them one of the most performed and loved song cycles in all classical music. Completed in 1827, they also set the template for classical song that composers were subsequently obliged to follow, even if only by reaction.

Now one of their best contemporary interpreters, the British tenor Ian Bostridge, has published a new book on the song cycle. Called Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, the book comes from a man who has been thinking about the songs for decades and has performed them live more than 100 times. When Bostridge claims to be fixated with the songs, you believe him.

He turns out to be a very interesting companion. Bostridge doesn’t have a music degree – he took up professional singing at 27 – and thus chooses to avoid any prolonged look at the song’s actual musical score. Most readers will probably take this as a mercy, not least because Bostridge has so many other things to share on his journey into the song cycle’s dark heart. He’s essentially a preacher to the converted – his belief in the songs’ greatness is so unshakeable that it doesn’t necessarily occur to him to make a direct case for it. But as a companion to sit and listen with, it’s a brilliant entry into the song cycle’s world.

The result is a fascinating eccentric journey. In a roundabout trip around Schubert’s world, we learn about the secret service in early-19th-century Austria (Schubert was once threatened with arrest for “inveighing against [officials] with insulting and opprobrious language”). For the song Die Krähe (The Crow), Bostridge also touches on the qualities of ravens (highly intelligent apparently), while Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain gets a substantial look-in thanks to its references to the Schubert song Der Lindenbaum (The Lime Tree).

And what a world the songs create. The beguiling but harsh landscape of the Winterreise is like a haunted Christmas card. In this icebound Narnia, tears freeze on the narrator’s face, he stumbles in snow looking for his beloved’s footsteps and carves her name in the ice of a frozen river. A crow follows him out of town as if waiting for him to die. An inn turns him away into the cold. A signpost reminds him that he’s on a journey that only goes in one direction. It’s a sad enough place, but painted with music of such unshakeable delicacy and lyricism, we never think of it as anything but beautiful.

These are more than just songs, however. Rather than being a mere accompaniment, the piano is elevated to become an equal partner with the singer. Schubert’s keyboard music brings the landscape described in the lyrics to life, with music suggesting gusts of wind, snow falling or water flowing under ice, the suggestion of birdsong, faraway horns or the wheezing of a hurdy-gurdy. Even though it’s a generalised landscape, its presence is so strong that when listening to the songs you can practically see your breath.

There’s something so emblematically Germanic about these songs featuring an isolated man apparently lost in the forest. Any­one who knows any fairy tales will think of Hansel and Gretel lost in the woods or Snow White escaping from the huntsman. Bostridge is nonetheless determined – rightly so – that we don’t allow ourselves a kitschy reading of the Winter Journey as some latter-day apparition of the spirit of the Brothers Grimm. These are songs made in a rapidly, alarmingly changing world, the book points out, and we need to shake ourselves awake to realise how strange the songs sounded to their original listeners. Take the song Die Post, for example, where the singer waits in vain for letters. While the idea of letters arriving by stagecoach might seem quaint now, at the time the postal service had slashed travel times by a third, making far-flung communities isolated no more. The equivalent today might be a song about a bullet train or, for all the radical change it brought, a commercial moon shuttle.

Attitudes to self-expression are changing too. While the tears that flow so freely in the songs would have been seen as noble in the 18th century, Bostridge notes that by Schubert’s time, they’re treated with a certain irony. Perhaps above all this was a world being reshaped by the emergence of a truly modern market economy. The Winterreise itself played a part in this world. It was created, after all, not as a project intended solely for Schubert’s attic, but as song sheets to be mass-produced and sold – songs for which Schubert’s publisher paid him handsomely.

When I saw Bostridge sing the Winterreise in concert at the Barbican in London two weeks ago, accompanied brilliantly on piano by the British composer Thomas Adès, the years of obsessing over the song cycle have clearly paid off. Bostridge delivered a performance of such dramatic intensity and spark that at his final curtain call, he looked pretty grey-faced. Bostridge delivered on his promise to make the songs sounds shockingly new. He paced as he sang (something he always does in concert) looking up and down, left to right as if to address each audience member individually. The result is not that he created a dashing, romantic figure on stage. The performance felt more like a hard-bitten reporter giving a dispatch from the front line.

While the music he and Adès summoned to life is unfailingly, captivatingly beautiful, a caustic, sarcastic edge crept in at times, as if the singer was aware of the ironies of his position. Singing the line (here translated) “My heart, in this river/do you recognise your own image?”, Bostridge managed to convey real angst but also a sense that maybe the singer thought his own fool’s heart might not be worth such grand comparison.

The singer’s physical presence underlined this singular interpretation. Tall and thin, Bostridge looks like a 1930s throwback, an engaging, gangly combination of Fred Astaire, Christopher Isherwood and Stan Laurel. Sometimes grabbing the piano as if to stabilise himself, he seemed utterly shattered when he returned to the stage after the concert for a question-and-answer session. The Winterreise is a vital part of the western canon, he insisted without pomposity, something that, just like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and the plays of Shakespeare, all educated people should know and be enriched by. In his thoughtful, lively book – and in his unique, dazzling performance of the cycle – he could just be the best advocate these songs have.

Feargus O’Sullivan is a regular contributor to The National.

Bostridge and Andsnes’s recording can be bought from Amazon here.

Bostridge’s book can be bought from Amazon here.


Published: January 22, 2015 04:00 AM


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