I’m obsessed with Schubert at the moment. This isn’t all that surprising: I tend to be all about Schubert in January, because Winterreise is just so perfect for this month: Bleak and cold, with no warm, prosperous spring waiting just around the corner. The excellent Jessica Duchen wrote a post about Schubert recently and makes some striking observations:
In Schubert, the major tonality is more tragic than the minor. It is the way he switches between them that rips at our innards. What is he doing? What is he saying? Recognition of darkness turns to acceptance of it, maybe. Or to seeing the beauty beyond it. Or to welcoming it. Or to extending compassion to everyone for it, with a wry smile through the tears. I believe that in the change from minor to major he is not only recognising the darkness and transforming it, but empathising with both sides of it, and with us all: in that switch, for Schubert, lies the essence of the human condition.
This is so accurate, I think. The major tonality has always been what moved me the most about Winterreise, exactly because it never signified to me something as banal as a glimpse of hope or optimisim or springtime. To me the switch to major tonality in the opening lied “Gute Nacht” has always been what solidified the sadness of it, and set the tone for the rest of the lied cycle which, I believe, is a cycle about an infitine, hopeless sadness. To me, the major tonality in this lied, and the rest of the lieder, signifies the recognition of the lost beauty, or love, or happiness without which the sadness would be bearable.
(from Ian Bostridge’s wonderful, staged Winterreise)
The change goes so well with the lyrics, too:
Will dich im Traum nicht stören,
Wär schad’ um deine Ruh’.
Sollst meinen Tritt nicht hören –
Sacht, sacht die Türe zu !
Schreib im Vorübergehen
Ans Tor dir: Gute Nacht,
Damit du mögest sehen,
An dich hab’ ich gedacht.
If there was nothing to the lied cycle but the bitter resolution expressed in the first three stanzas (“Was soll ich länger weilen…?”), surely there would be no lied cycle at all. The persona would have marched right out of the wintry little town with rapid steps, as indicated by the resolute walking pace of the lied (also noted by Duchen). Spring would have come. But the persona lingers because of course there is something other than the bitterness. There is a tenderness and a love that, tragically, seems to live on the frail constitution of the persona amid the frozen landscape, like the crow that is hoping to pick the persona’s bones after his death, and it creeps into every lied in the cycle, making the cycle the masterpiece that it is.
Am I reading too much into Schubert’s music, putting words in his mouth? Likely. But I feel like it’s more the other way around: Schubert puts notes into my mouth. Even in the pieces that are purely instrumental, I always feel like he is using music as a universal language and speaking to me directly and extremely eloquently through it. Like in the second movement of his piano trio in E flat, which Duchen also posts and which happens to be one of my favourite pieces of any classical music:
I feel like I understand exactly what Schubert is saying here, as plainly as if he had been speaking in my native tongue, except that his music makes him capable of expressing sentiments so complex and nuanced that words would never be able to cover it. There’s something in there about frustration, something about sorrow and longing, and something about an obstacle, but also something about determination. And something very basic about breathing, one’s chest rising and falling. But like I said, my words aren’t adequate. Sometimes words aren’t. To me, Schubert proved this better than any other composer.