Monday, December 19, 2011

Winter Journey: Shubert's "Winterreise"

At a holiday open house this past weekend, I heard a guest talking about Three Pianos. I had already read about the Obie Award-winning play now in production at the A.R.T. in Cambridge. Winterreise, the Schubert song-cycle at the heart of the evening’s entertainment, is a touchstone for me, recalling a cold, sunny afternoon in an apartment in Boston’s Back Bay where thirty years ago a friend, a voice major, rehearsed the piece while I watched. A tall ficus tree had stood in the window next to the piano.

I have not listened to Winterreise with any regularity since then. I thought yesterday that I might try what a favorite high-school teacher had once suggested as a useful method for deepening appreciation of a piece of music. He had advised listening to a variety of recordings of the composition and noticing differences in the experience.

With YouTube as a source of recordings, I moved yesterday through three renderings of “Der Lindenbaum” (”The Linden Tree”), the fifth song in the cycle. The first performance of the song that I watched comes from a 1930 German film titled Das Lockende Ziel (The Alluring Goal), starring opera singer Richard Tauber. The movie tells the story of a singer, and an early scene of his singing “Der Lindenbaum” – almost off the cuff – in a restaurant or café is useful for showing the reaction of the people who hear it. This song touches something in a whole range of the restaurant’s customers. The scene told me to expect that I might encounter other people with a similar reaction to Schubert's song.

The next recording of “Der Lindenbaum” shows some of those other people. Some readers may be as surprised as I to learn that before The Sound of Music ever moved American audiences, first on the Broadway stage (1959) and then as an Academy Award-winning film (1965), there were two German-Austrian movies about the Trapp Family Singers. What appears an impromptu performance of “Der Lindenbaum” in Die Trapp Familie (1956) evokes reactions from listeners similar to those depicted in Das Lockende Ziel.

Sentimentality? There is no denying that both the 1930 movie and the 1956 movie strive for an emotional response. One movie predates the political victory of National Socialism; we witness the readiness on the part of ordinary Germans to respond to a song associated with the homeland of their youth and childhood. The later film follows the defeat of National Socialism by ten years; this time immigrants from all the continents respond to the very same song, reminded of the tie to homeland that they can all feel.

Without such external narratives, what does Schubert's musical setting of the poem by Wilhelm Mueller manage to convey? Listening for a third time to "Der Lindenbaum," this time to a 1935 recording by an all-male German choral group, a listener is ready to be haunted.

Ready for German text? Ready for English translation? Ready for the overarching structure of the twenty-four songs? I am.

I might be ready for a January project.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely a beautiful post. Bravo! You write like a sober angel.
I did not expect the male choir to sound quite so sweet - as in tender - not saccharine.
The children of course - so pure - so adorable, singing this beautiful melody with the lyrics so powerfully suggestive of something much more serious - and which I think emerges in its underhanded way when the two melodies begin to intertwine...
I just finished doing a post on Winterreiser, and posted all the 24 tracks, sung by Brigitte Fassbaender. If this might suit your taste, come and listen, and if not, please let me know when you get to your German text translations. I have no doubt sometime in the future I will be compelled by inner forces to add my 2¢ worth to the mix, and I feel I must hear what more you have to say on the subject.
Kind Regards, Dia Tsung

John said...

Thank you.

The alternative to a "sober angel"? Sounds dizzying.

Merry Christmas.

Dia said...

'Dizzying' would be it, I am certain.
No insult was intended by 'sober' - I intended to say nothing other than well balanced and clear-eyed etc.
Merry Christmas to you as well Donald. Only the residue of a white Christmas here in Denver, unless we get some additional snow.

John said...

"Sober" is never an insult. I'll claim it happily. No intention ever to suggest otherwise in my own comment.

Hope Christmas Day was an easy joy.