Winterreise (Originally Die Winterreise, the Poems by Wilhelm Müller) is trademark Schubert, if ever there were one such Composition. It is Depression. It is beyond Depression: it is Nihilism. Man falls out of the Quest for the Truth, and here, it is because of a Woman, and Man never returns. He dies.
Winterreise is evil, which I have hinted at earlier. It makes one believe that Sadness is good, that feeling sorry for oneself is good, that pining for the Beloved is a noble Cause. But beyond that, we must see the Innocence in the Lyrics, the power of raw, unadulterated, unbiased, sentimental, “soft” Feeling; we must see that the Protagonist is innocent in a way we do not, and refuse to, understand today. “Loser,” say the Americans and all who ape them. The Days of “good old love,” as many Americans might put it, and the Days when a Man loved a Woman and lost and wept are over.
Winterreise starts off on a sombre note, one of Resignation and Hopelessness. Gute Nacht is hardly a happy Beginning for a Song-Cycle; all Hope has already been lost, and that sets the Tone for all the rest of the Songs – in one word, miserable. Today, we do not get miserable when one Love is lost. There was a Time – or at least a Sphere – in which one did.
The Man blames himself for having trusted a Woman whose house has a Weather-Vane on the roof; this, of course, borders on the childish, and I don’t hesitate to say that it has no poetic Appeal either. Weather-vane compared to the girl’s Emotions? Of course, this is not to say that Women don’t change in that Way, but it is now immature to think in that Way.
Gefrorne Tränen (Frozen Tears) is in the spirit of good poetic Imagery, where Tears spring from “a Spring so hot it could melt all of Winter’s Ice,” but that is all. Erstarrung is where it really gets interesting: the Lovers used to walk across the Fields, he misses her now, and what is the Result in a Mind given to Depression, a Mind that has been denied Access to Prozac? Hot Feeling, Feeling so hot it is irritating to those who call such People “Losers.” Where find I a green Blade? Where find I green Grass? And then the climax: “My Heart is frozen, and her Image stares coldly from within.” Insensitive folks would do well to wonder what would happen if this were to happen to them: would the cold Image of the beloved stare from within?
We Schubert-lovers take our pleasure here. “Oh, it has happened to you too,” we say, and weep a tear in Reminiscence. The rest of the World laughs at Innocence when this happens.
Wasserflut (Water-flood) is deeply moving; after other things, the Man points out that where one feels hot Tears, while moving through the Town, is his loved one’s house. If one were to think that this is childish, one is to know that Innocence has been lost. If one were to be moved, one is to know that one has Hope yet.
Auf dem Flusse (At the River) is the logical Climax of the first Part of the Cycle. It cries, “My heart, do you not see your own image in this frozen river?” Frozen Rivers are sad, as are dried-up Rivers; bald Valleys are sad, as are broken Hearts. But, Winners, press on! Feel not what has passed! Know not what a Heart is like when it is frozen, know not what having a Heart means! Win, you Winners, win!
In Rückblick, the Man blames the City itself as being unfaithful, which I myself find childish, Truth be told. The songs are in Schubert’s Order for his Reasons, and immediately after Auf dem Flusse comes Irrlicht, with its unforgettable Lyrics: “all our Woes and Happinesses are but the play of a Will-o’-the-Wisp.” Trivial? But when ever did we really understand these Things that they should be trivial? People have told us: “Happinesses and Sadnesses come and go.” Have we seen them come and go? If we have, have those Things been profound enough to be called so? And what is one to make of the Statement of one who sees these Things for what they are? We live in a Place where Knowledge and Information supersede Experience; we consider Experience an objective Variable.
The Irrlicht Song itself is beautiful: “all Sorrows will find their way to their Graves”… enough to make even a Prozac-free Person believe in Sorrow, in its Reality, in its Immediacy, in its Hotness.
The next remarkable Song is Der greise Kopf (“The hoary Head”): the Man wonders why his Hair has not turned white despite his Sorrows. He was happy to see that his white Hair (because of the snow) indicates that he will soon die. He is then unhappy when the Wind blows the Snow away. How childish can lyrics get?
Well, how childish needs one be to see the Point that Death is sometimes welcome?
And then we have Die Krähe, where the Man wonders why the Crow is flying about him – then says that if it is because the Crow wants his dead Body as “Booty,” it is welcome, so that Constancy is served – Constancy to the Grave. Silly, yes, but Constancy is hard to come by. Constancy can be craved so much that it can lead Wilhelm Müller to write these lyrics about a man being happy regarding a preying Crow flitting about him. Yes, Constancy is what we want. In fact, Constancy is what everyone wants – the Winners “illuse” it in inconstant Things; the losers press on.
Der stürmische Morgen, with its thumping Teutonic Rhythms, is delightful: would that the Sun be overcast! Would that there be Clouds be everywhere, to match my Mood! One cannot bear the Disconnect between a sick Heart and a lively World! Have any other Lyrics been so direct as to state this in such a ready Way?
Der Wegweiser presents us with the semantic turning-Point of the song-cycle: the Man decides he must go where no Man has gone before, or at least, where no Man has gone and returned. But it is, really speaking, nothing but a turning Point.
And then we have Frühlingstraum (Dream of Spring), the saddest Song in the Cycle. No amount of Detail can do justice to presenting how sad it is, at least how sad it is to innocent Minds; towards the end, the Man asks when he will hold his Beloved in his Arms. What say we, but that this is the real World? Einsamkeit (Loneliness) follows as a sort of corollary: I am alone, I move pitifully through all of joyous Life.
After two more comes the final Song, where the Man decides to join his Lot with that of a pitiful Organ-Grinder who makes hardly any Money from his Songs. “Will you play your Organ to my Songs?”
My idea is that too many of us have become insensitive to Emotion; the Responses would vary from “Take Prozac” (#1) to “You loser” to “Forget the past,” and one knows the Rest. The idea is, when one has lost, yes, one is the loser, and why is that a bad Thing instead of a sad Thing? And why should one, can one, would one, forget the Past, for are we not the Sum of our Experiences?
All I need to say is that Wilhelm Müller’s Lyrics are too childish, but we are too mature. Schubert has shown us the middle path, enigmatic as that half-Sentence might seem – well, Schubert has shown us mature People that there is something to be found in Innocence, in fact, much to be found.