Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Schubert’s Winter Journey. Anatomy of an Obsession, by Ian Bostridge

71tlC0CkydL._SL1280_Ian Bostridge has sung Schubert’s monumental song-cycle Winterreise in public performance at least 100 times in the past 30 years. This exquisite book is the result of all his study and preparation, amounting to total absorption in the musical and cultural universe of these 24 songs. I find it hard to imagine how anyone could have written a more perfect, or more perfectly accessible guide to one of the miracles of western classical music.

I was given the LPs of Winterreise, a version by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore, for my 21st birthday, and played it obsessively. I had no German, and, apart from sleevenotes and translations, I realise that until now I have done little other than adore it as beautiful noise. Lieder as an artform is the perfect partnership of singer and pianist. German lieder are so amazingly pared down, and the artists performing them so very exposed. There is no place to hide. Every syllable, every single note of accompaniment must speak to the listener (even if to be received as superficially as I did). Musical accuracy and feeling need to be combined with piercing emotional truth. Any performances worth putting before an audience must have the former, and it needs musical genius to combine it with the latter. Of the versions I have lived with, Fischer-Dieskau and Moore, and Bostridge and Andsnes have this in the greatest abundance, (though Winterreise must be among the most frequently recorded pieces in the Western classical canon and there are many wonderful performances to choose from).

Ian Bostridge has qualities that make him an excellent guide to this piece for every listener. It is not necessary to be musically trained or gifted to be informed and uplifted by what he has to say. This book is part memoir, part musical and performance guide, part cultural commentary, wholly fascinating. It has an interesting and multi-layered sub-title, Anatomy of an Obsession – Bostridge’s own, after preparing it so many times; the protagonist of the poems, cast out into winter darkness; Schubert’s, having wrestled with setting the cycle almost to the day of his tragically early death.

The author came late to a singing career. His degree and doctorate are in history, and his first career was as an academic historian. He did not have a conventional musical formation, and his own passion for this song-cycle started as that of a listener. His experience as a scholar and teacher has made him a wonderful writer as well as a supreme performer. All this helps to make the book accessible to any reader with the curiosity to pick it up. If you know the work, it will only make listening to it more pleasurable and fulfilling; if you do not, well, you have a wonderful discovery to come.

Winterreise (Winter Journey) is Schubert’s setting of a cycle of 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller, written in the 1820s at the height of Romantic sensibility in literature and art. Schubert started to study them at about the time he was diagnosed with the disease that would cause his death in 1828 at the tragically early age of thirty. The atmosphere of the cycle of poems is Byronic, the protagonist an outcast, pitched into a winter world by some reversal in love – though whether he is the rejector or the rejected is wholly ambiguous. On his journey he sees objects in the winter landscape and experiences the natural phenomena of the season, and these spark reflections on his situation and destiny. If there is beauty, and there is, it is cold and unforgiving, and mirrors the winter in the hero’s heart and mind.

Ian Bostridge takes each song as a starting point for a reflection of his own. Having spent so much time immersed in study and preparation of this work for performance, his knowledge of the technical, historical and cultural context is vast and deep. Each chapter is headed by the text of the poem, followed by his own translation, then his commentary on the content. These essays do not follow a standard pattern – some are short and some are long, but all dive beneath the surface of the deceptively simple poems to explore their meaning. The essay may (or may not) pivot around a question of musical performance or interpretation, or a technical point arising from the score. (In his essay on Wasserflut (The Flood) he tells an anecdote about performing the song in the Wigmore Hall and noticing a distinguished musician in the audience exhibit signs of shock at a certain passage, and turn to communicate it to two other performers sitting next to him. It must have been most disconcerting. This story is the jumping off point for one of the technical discussions, about a passage in the accompaniment where Schubert’s notation could admit two interpretations.) Some songs inspire examination of the historic and social context of Vienna in the 1820s and the world of Germanic culture from which Müller and Schubert sprang, and the wider global influences that reached them. Others describe such matters as the science of the natural phenomena the poems describe: the winter climate, the will o’ the wisp, the double suns, the natural history of the crow family – or human constructs: the postal service, the signposts on roads, the waltz craze, the inspiration from folklore and high art. Throughout, Bostridge shows himself to be a polymath, and brings to bear a wide-ranging knowledge. The memoir in this book emerges over time, as he reveals his own journey with this piece, which, in terms of a monument of world culture, he compares to the work of Shakespeare or Dante. So much of what he has to tell me enhances my understanding and appreciation, not just of Winterreise, but of Schubert’s contemporaries and influences.

A few words about the book itself and some considerations of how to read it. I have the hardback edition, which is small and square and thick, unlike the size and shape of any other book I have seen recently published, and sits beautifully in the hand. The typography is elegant, on silky cream paper, and gives lots of space and air to the text, which means that its 502 pages need not be daunting. I found I had to change tack when reading it though – I started, as I do, at the introduction and kept on reading, carrying it around with me – but I could not keep that up. I had to make myself the time and space to be able to listen to the songs, sometimes before, sometimes during and sometimes after reading the relevant chapter. It is certainly therefore a book that needs some attention to the reading environment (taking it on the train worked only to a limited extent, but then, I had forgotten my earphones), but equally, each chapter stands alone and so the book is ideal for dipping in and out. The illustrations are exquisite and beautifully chosen, and quite sparse (it is not a picture book). My one huge sorrow is that it does not have an index. That is such a shame – many times I recollected that the author had mentioned something that struck an almost metaphysical spark, but I couldn’t easily find it again. That could be the only reason I can possibly think of to buy the Kindle edition (and miss out on the sheer sensual pleasure of handling this book). At least I could search for the relevance of The Last of the Mohicans or the apt quotation from Emily Dickinson.

This book achieves some sort of perfection for me – by a favourite interpreter of much-loved music, who has the gift of widening and deepening my understanding of a work of art of unrivalled world standing; all this in the form of a beautifully produced example of the art of the book. If you love Schubert’s music, or even if you do not yet know whether you do or not, this book can only entice you further into its world.

Ian Bostridge: Schubert’s Winter Journey. Anatomy of an Obsession. London: Faber and Faber, 2015. 502pp
ISBN 13: 9780571282807

2 comments on “Schubert’s Winter Journey. Anatomy of an Obsession, by Ian Bostridge

  1. Jackie
    March 14, 2015

    This is one of your best reviews and is almost too intimate, speaking as it does of your love for the music and the effect and experiences of reading the book. I am envious of your understanding of such a complex piece of music and the way it can translate into a shared language with a singer such as this. There is such a depth to this review and also something elusive that made it something more than just telling us about the book and the music, something quite splendid.

  2. pau1morgan
    March 14, 2015

    Thanks for drawing my attention to this . . . I shall start my Christmas-hint-dropping early this year!

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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