Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession

by Ian Bostridge
Faber and Faber, 2014
528 pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780571282807

The shocking impact on its first hearers of Schubert’s Winterreise is well documented; his friends were ‘dumb­founded’ by the overwhel­ming power of the grief expressed in the 24 settings of Wilhelm Muller’s poems. It is hugely popular today, but you have to prepare yourself for a performance – rather like going to King Lear – and Bostridge notes that silence usually follows the closing song, The Hurdy-Gurdy Man… the “sort of silence that otherwise only a Bach Passion can summon up”.

This guide to its grip on us, by someone as experienced in singing it and as authoritative about its background as Ian Bostridge, is a most welcome arrival. The book looks at each song in order, giving the text in the original German and then in translation, after which Bostridge explores its historical context then finding “new and unexpected connections – both contemporary and long dead – literary, visual, psychological, scientific and political”. There is a refreshing lack of musical analysis which will recommend him to the general reader, but his wide knowledge of history and art and above all his personal engagement with this great work as an ‘obsessed’ singer make his insights absolutely fascinating.

The range of associations, anecdotes and illustrations make the book an unfolding treasury: behind the songs are perhaps the failed love and dread of approaching death of the tragically young composer, and the repression and censorship of the Biedermeier world of Schubert and his friends.

But they were written in the wake of the “Winter journey to end all winter journeys”, Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, which Bostridge describes in horrifying detail. This is linked to much later history… for example, the first performance by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, given when he was a schoolboy on January 30th 1943 and interrupted by a British bombing raid. The terrible conditions of the trenches in Stalingrad are considered, and Bostridge imagines German officers and soldiers listening to a recording made by Hans Hotter: “the Winterreise might have been a consoling companion in that other winter journey in 1942, abstract emotions allowing an escape from the concrete”

More contemporary resonances are struck with C. S. Lewis, Krapp’s Last Tape, Bob Dylan and Amy Winehouse. There are some unique insights given into 19th century marriage laws in Austria, and into changing attitudes to tears and weeping. Snippets of autobiography, illustrating the writer’s own journey, are revealing and touching.

Ian Bostridge’s scholarship and mastery of such a wide range of material (the bibliography alone runs to 10 pages) is hugely impressive but his touch is light; this is immensely readable, enjoyable and enlightening. His ‘obsession’ reaches out to the mind and heart of the reader, ensuring a much deeper response to this transcendental work.

Cathy Martins