Franz Schubert’s great song cycle Winterreise, which Ian Bostridge will perform April 23 at the Lobero Theatre, is, in the words of the acclaimed tenor, “The first and greatest of concept albums.”
That may sound a little glib. But in the book Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, Bostridge’s rich, fact-packed exploration of the piece, its cultural and historical roots, and the countless ways it reverberates, the singer turned author makes a strong argument for the continued modernity of the 70-minute masterpiece. His book, just published in January by Knopf, could have been titled Schubert, Our Contemporary.
Did you think stripping down a story to its bare essentials, leaving the audience to string together its ambiguous pieces, was the invention of experimental novelists or filmmakers? Schubert, in adapting a set of 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller, was doing just that nearly 200 years ago.
Did you assume the existentialist writers of the mid-20th century were the first to describe the feeling of being lost and lonely in an unknowable, uncaring world? Once again, Schubert got there first.
“Schubert’s was an age in which, and perhaps for the first time, to be a human being could seem very lonely in a metaphysical sense,” Bostridge writes, noting that playwright Samuel Beckett was a huge fan of the composer, and specifically of Winterreise.
Granted, Schubert’s unnamed protagonist isn’t waiting for Godot. Rather, he’s trudging his way through a severe winter landscape, trying unsuccessfully to escape his own pain. The text implies that the man (maybe a tutor) fell in love with a young woman but then discovered they could not be married, perhaps because of his lack of wealth and status.
So he leaves her house and town forever and heads out into the cold, pausing occasionally to contemplate such natural phenomena as the raven circling over his head or the ice crystals forming on the windows of the hut where he has found temporary shelter. They ominously echo his emotions, blurring the line between objectivity and subjectivity and inviting us inside his scarred psyche.
As Bostridge, who is as good a writer as he is a singer, puts it: “We are drawn in by an obsessively confessional soul, apparently an emotional exhibitionist, who won’t give us the facts. But this allows us to supply the facts of our own lives, and make him our mirror.”
The journey, the singer writes, is ultimately “an existential quest …. What might have been no more than a simple love story progressively deepens to become something more nuanced and complex, in terms of both social relations and metaphysical engagement. How do we live in the world and relate to others? Where is God? What can we know of the divine?”
Such questions were probably on the composer’s mind when he died in 1828 at age 31. Historians believe the likely cause was either syphilis, probably contracted in a bordello, or mercury poisoning. (In those days, mercury was considered a cure for the venereal disease.)
A tragic ending, to be sure, but Schubert — who proofed the score of Winterreise on his deathbed — left us with an astonishing amount of great music. He took inspiration from poetry, and in the case of this song cycle, it’s clear that he strongly identified with his protagonist. His “self-conception,” Bostridge writes, was “that of the outsider, the rejected one.”
The English tenor, who first sang this work 30 years ago, argues that such a personal connection is also vital for a performer. “There is no neutral way of presenting this music,” Bostridge writes. “The performer has to access and transform private aspects of his or her self.”
Bostridge doesn’t reveal all that much of himself in the book. For the record, he was born in London on Christmas Day, 1964, and studied history and philosophy at both Cambridge and Oxford (earning his doctorate from the latter university in 1990). He was a post-doctoral fellow in history at Oxford when he switched gears and embarked upon a full-time career as a singer.
That impressive academic background helps explain why he is so comfortable discussing everything from politics to science in his book, each chapter of which begins with his own translation of one of the cycle’s 24 songs. Economics enters into the discussion as well, in the form of an astute observation.
Schubert, he writes, is “the first of the canonical ‘great’ composers to have made his living solely in the marketplace, without a patron [or] a position in the court or church …. He made plenty of money from his compositions. He was proud when he did. But his position was perilous. Insecurity was woven into his existence.”
As it is for almost all of us today, given the recent economic meltdown, a changing climate, and our general sense of dislocation and disconnection. Fear and alienation are painful, but as Schubert shows us in this remarkable work, great art that directly addresses such emotions can provide a temporary respite — and sometimes even transcendence.
CAMA presents tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Wenwen Du Thursday, April 23, 8 p.m., at the Lobero Theatre. Tickets are $39-$49. Call (805) 963-0761 or see lobero.com.