The name Franz Schubert is inseparably associated with the early Romantic song. Schubert would belong among the most important composers of the genre even if only for the number of songs he wrote, having created more than 600 of them. One of his best-known songs, the ballad Erlkönig (The Elf-King), D 328, to words by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is designated as his Opus 1. He wrote it in 1815 at the age of 18. The popular song Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel), D 118, is even earlier, from autumn 1814, and it is again based on a poem by Goethe. Throughout his creative life, Schubert turned to the song as a musical form that, being combined with poetry, was able to communicate the internal movement of thought in an extraordinary way. Of course, many of Schubert’s songs would have little or no meaning were they not such honest, beautiful, and inspirational creations. “With his songs, Schubert created a new epoch,” said Antonín Dvořák in 1894, who was certainly speaking based on his own experience as a composer of successful song cycles. Among Schubert’s predecessors and models, one must mention for example Beethoven’s 1816 song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved), Op. 98, but it was Schubert who consistently elevated the piano part from a mere accompaniment to an equal partner with the voice, and whose handling of the song genre was of unprecedented complexity, overflowing with original harmonies, sophisticated treatment of modality, melodic freshness, and deep immersion in the poetic texts.
Although there is a theory that Schubert’s 20 songs based on poems by Ludwig Gotthard Kosegarten from 1815 may constitute a cycle and that the composer had probably also intended combine six songs on texts by Heinrich Heine (1828) into a single whole, we know about only two song cycles with certainty: Die schöne Müllerin (The Lovely Miller’s Daughter), Op. 25, D 795, and Winterreise (Winter Journey), Op. 89, D 911. Their basis was the poetry of Schubert’s contemporary, the Prussian author Wilhelm Müller (1794–1827), an educated literary historian, librarian, editor of older German literature, and Freemason. Moreover, Müller was an ardent music lover, and he is said to have written in his notes: “I can neither play an instrument nor sing, yet when writing poetry, I am playing and singing. If I knew how to make melodies, I would like my poems even better than I do now. But I console myself that I shall find a kindred spirit whose listening will bring forth the music from my verses…” That kindred spirit was found in Franz Schubert. He was struck by the verses of Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, where Müller was working with a popular Romantic theme—wandering in order to find oneself. No doubt, the archetype of the eternal wanderer with his existential questions is timeless, and these questions were particularly relevant to Schubert, who was struggling with poor health and a bleak prognosis at the time when he composed the songs.
The genesis of Winterreise as a cycle of 24 songs was not simple. In February 1827, Schubert composed the first 12 songs based on an edition of Müller’s poems in the periodical Urania (Wanderlieder von Wilhelm Müller, Die Winterreise, 1823). The order of those 12 songs corresponds exactly to the order of the poems in Urania. What a surprise it was for Schubert when he found out that yet another 12 poems belonged to Winterreise! All 24 poems had been published in 1824 in a volume of selected poems by Müller titled Gedichte aus den hinterlassenen Papieren eines reisenden Waldhornisten II. Lieder des Lebens und der Liebe, where they appeared in a different ordering. Schubert is said to have discovered that work at an unknown point in time in the library of his friend Franz von Schober, with whom he sometimes lived. The second part of the cycle, i.e. songs 13–24, was finished in October 1827. That time gap may also have influenced the first edition of Winterreise by the Viennese publisher Tobias Haslinger: a volume with songs 1–12 was issued in January 1828, while the second volume was not issued until that December, after Schubert’s death.
A gloomy atmosphere pervades Winterreise. The monodrama, narrated by a wanderer, begins with a lover’s broken heart, but that is just the initial impulse. We know nothing more about the narrator than that he has dark hair, but then he opens up his inner world to us—alienation, loneliness, tension between reason and emotions and between dream and reality, resignation, but also bitter humour, the contrast between the frozen winter landscape and a burning, sorrowful heart, thoughts about death, and reconciliation with the inevitable. Of course, there are also other interpretations: some scholars find references in Schubert’s cycle to the political situation in Austria in the 1820s, others see in it a portrait of personal maturation under the pressure of circumstances, or to the contrary, a struggle with thoughts of suicide. The character of the music goes together congenially with the text, which demands an experienced singer with perfect diction; the piano “accompaniment” is no longer an accompaniment, but rather an instrumental voice of importance equal to the singer, and the words and music supplement each other. The Czech pianist David Mareček made the following apt comments about Winterreise: “Schubert is able to express the strongest emotions by the simplest means. To find a balance between depth of feeling and purity of form, to build a violent climax out of absolute calm, to maintain tension over long stretches of time, to find the right colouristic and dynamic relationship between the voice and the piano, to polish every song like a unique jewel and to set it into a whole lasting over an hour…”. From among the 24 songs, here are some specific examples: No. 5, Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree), which was basically turned into a popular song on the basis of an arrangement by Friedrich Silcher, No. 11, Frühlingstraum (Dream of Spring), with its moving musical contrast between a beautiful dream, awakening from it, and the desire to make the dream come true, and finally the concluding song Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man), again with the possibility of differing interpretations depending upon the context in which it is examined, or upon one’s psychological or philosophical point of view. Has the wanderer attained conciliation, or has he drowned in nihilism?
The cycle was originally intended for tenor and piano, but it has been transcribed to make it available for all vocal ranges. There are arrangements for piano four-hands, string quartet, voice and guitar, orchestra, and so on and so forth. Performing and listening to Winterreise as a whole, as should be done, demands great concentration from the performers and the listeners. In the early days of the Czech Chamber Music Society, songs tended to be included in programmes individually, often by different composers, as a supplement to compositions for chamber ensembles, which greatly predominated. Audiences here did not become familiar a sample from Winterreise until 1915, when they heard the famous song Der Lindenbaum, mentioned above. By then, however, a Society for the Cultivation of the Art Song (Spolek pro pěstování písně) had been established, and a wider selection of songs from Winterreise was presented at their second concert on 15 February 1909. It is certain that the musical and intellectual content of Schubert’s greatest song cycle must be heard in its entirety for the message to come across; the rich history of the cycle’s performances in this country and especially abroad clearly shows that this is just as true today as it was nearly 200 years ago.