Last chance at Winter 2016 / by Edmund Milly

Pardon the long silence! It's been a busy winter, but I intend to get back into the habit of blogging. To that end, I thought I'd share some program notes I whipped up yesterday for today's performance of Winterreise at Sanctuary 1867 in Ewing, NJ with Étienne Lemieux-Després. It's been an invigorating couple of weeks, being constantly on the road, preparing things on the fly. I feel grateful that I got so deeply acquainted with this cycle last year, which made it so much easier to bring back. Anyway, here's what I came up with, which I'm hoping is approachable enough for someone to whom this piece is going to be totally foreign, but substantial enough to offer something to the connoisseur.

A romance ends, and rejection stings. His world destroyed, the poet’s thoughts tumble out in a series of desperate and paranoid metaphors. The world around him is black and white, devoid of sunlight and warmth. Tears freeze to his cheeks before he even acknowledges them. Stray dogs growl at him, and crows throw snowballs at his head. Wait - seriously? This Wanderer character obviously has a bad case of seasonal depression, but nothing seems to make him feel better except talking a blue streak and walking, doesn’t matter where, just out, away from Her.

People often view the Winterreise as a bleak or pessimistic work, pointing to the final song as some indication that our intrepid protagonist, the unnamed Wanderer, has finally “lost it.” This type of critic might say that he devolves from relatively lucid and poetic expressions of heartbreak (the sophisticated nature conceits of #3, 6, 7, etc.) into madness – hallucinations (#14, 19, 23), paranoia (#16), and delusions of grandeur (#22). To some, the portrait of a destitute vagrant organ-grinder which concludes the cycle (#24) is an indication of what the Wanderer will eventually become, or perhaps has already become.

I take issue with this interpretation, and would like to offer a more hopeful outlook. To my mind, the Wanderer begins the cycle as a young man so profoundly depressed and traumatized by a breakup that he is unable to see beyond himself. His own thoughts and feelings constitute his world. The compassion he shows for a total stranger in the final song is a sign that he has begun to escape the hell of his own solipsism. He no longer feels spite and revulsion for other people (as he did in #1, #2, and #17), and his gaze has gone from inward to outward. In “Der Lindenbaum” (#5), the Wanderer reveals that he is constantly tempted by the thought of suicide (“Here you would have found rest”), but, unlike the main character of Schubert’s other great song cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin – who explicitly drowns himself at the conclusion of the cycle – the Wanderer somehow just keeps going, even as he continues to long for the peace of death (#14, 21, 23). He may not exactly be bursting with enthusiasm, but, considering that he has avoided temptation so many times, he seems to have made a decision to keep living. The cycle concludes with the suggestion that he could find fulfillment through artistic expression (#24: “Strange old man, shall I go with you? Do you want to play my songs on your hurdy-gurdy?”)

Propagating the view that suicide is the inevitable end result of depression is not just lazy literary criticism, it is also socially irresponsible. In my opinion, Wilhelm Müller’s poems amply support a more hopeful interpretation of Winterreise. There is a certain Romantic trope in works such as Die Schöne Müllerin, or The Sorrows of Young Werther, whereby suicide is portrayed as a glamorous, dramatic gesture. Winterreise remains relevant in the 21st century because the Wanderer escapes these generic, two-dimensional clichés, suggesting that through introspection and travel we can process and rehabilitate even the worst personal traumas.