Poetry corner: Winterreise

Schubert is the most poetic of composers. His ear for the emotional tune is matched only by Beethoven, or occasionally Chopin. However, if you write more than 600 songs for solo singer, never mind the other works, there may well be a problem with consistency. In attempting to get through every piece on Hyperion’s remarkable 40 CD recording of the complete songs (all 2,851 minutes of it), Damian Thompson of the Spectator eventually admitted defeat. Part of the problem is the words, Schubert always used other writers’ poems.  To quote Thompson:

Despite Richard Wigmore’s sparkling translations, many of the poems are garbage. In ‘Der Liedler’ (1815), a minstrel saves a maiden from a werewolf by smashing his harp against him and then hurling him over a cliff. Even Schubert couldn’t polish this particular turd. Long, corny, cod-medieval ballads never showed him at his best. Short, commonplace love poems weren’t a problem, however. Schubert could invest the plainest lament — his poets were champion lamenters — with emotions far beyond the grasp of the writer. A lilting rhythm jumps into the pianist’s left hand; a flattened sixth creates a flicker of fear; a predictable cadence dissolves into a remote key. Earthbound verse takes flight.

Which makes Winterreise all the more remarkable. The poet is Wilhelm Müller, and, put frankly, it’s a very bleak and miserable trip. The spurned lover sets off into a very cold, dark, threatening landscape, bereft of hope. In the era of the romcom, this is its antithesis. Here is the translation by Celia Sgroi. It’s not great poetry in English, but it’s effective, and the sentiments are clear (and timeless, we’ve all been there to some extent). The German is more melodious, even in plain speech:

Gute Nacht
 Fremd bin ich eingezogen,                      I came here a stranger,
Fremd zieh’ ich wieder aus.                     As a stranger I depart.
Der Mai war mir gewogen                        May favoured me
Mit manchem Blumenstrauß.                   With many a bunch of flowers.
Das Mädchen sprach von Liebe,              The girl spoke of love
Die Mutter gar von Eh’, –                          Her mother even of marriage –
Nun ist die Welt so trübe,                        Now the world is so gloomy,
Der Weg gehüllt in Schnee.                     The road shrouded in snow.
Ich kann zu meiner Reisen                       I cannot choose the time
Nicht wählen mit der Zeit,                       To begin my journey,
Muß selbst den Weg mir weisen              Must find my own way
In dieser Dunkelheit.                                In this darkness
Es zieht ein Mondenschatten                    A shadow of the moon travels
Als mein Gefährte mit,                              With me as my companion,
Und auf den weißen Matten                     And upon the white fields
Such’ ich des Wildes Tritt.                         I seek the deer’s track.
Was soll ich länger weilen,                       Why should I stay here any longer
Daß man mich trieb hinaus ?                    So that people can drive me away ?
Laß irre Hunde heulen                              Let stray dogs howl
Vor ihres Herren Haus;                              In front of their master’s house;
Die Liebe liebt das Wandern –                   Love loves to wander –
Gott hat sie so gemacht –                          God made it that way –
Von einem zu dem andern.                        From one to the other,
Fein Liebchen, gute Nacht !                      My dearest, good night !
Will dich im Traum nicht stören,              I don’t want to disturb your dreaming,
Wär schad’ um deine Ruh’.                         It would be a shame to wake you.
Sollst meinen Tritt nicht hören –               You won’t hear my step,
Sacht, sacht die Türe zu !                           Softly, softly the door closes !
Schreib im Vorübergehen                           I write in passing
Ans Tor dir: Gute Nacht,                             On your gate: Good night,
Damit du mögest sehen,                            So that you may see

An dich hab’ ich gedacht                            That I thought of you.

The key to it all, is Schubert and his extraordinary gift for plangent melody. Here is Gute Nacht performed by Daniel Barenboim and Thomas Quasthoff. When you consider Quasthoff’s disability, married with his amazing voice., it’s hard not to discern an extra level of poignancy. Try the piece whilst reading the lyrics and translation, that is the real poetic Schubert.


**For interested readers, this blog and its successors are pretty good on the whole Winterreise thing. This podcast is worth a listen if it remains available, and this geeksite is pretty comprehensive re past recordings and other links.

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