The greatest of all song cycles is Schubert’s Winterreise (or Winter’s Journey). The set of 24 songs (“lieder” if you prefer German) ostensibly is about the travails of a young man, rejected by his sweetheart, who sets out on a bleak journey through wind, ice and snow, his mood matching the weather.
But most commentators believe that the cycle is really about death, not unrequited love. Several facts point that way.
Wilhelm Müller, who wrote the 24 poems that Schubert set to music, died at 33 in 1827, the year the music was composed. Schubert himself died a year later at age 31. The theory is that both young men saw death approaching and were filled with existential foreboding.
And indeed death is a theme in Winterreise. For instance, in one song, “Das Wirtshaus” (“The Inn”), it turns out that the inn is really a graveyard, and the young man is seeking his final rest there. But all rooms/graves are occupied, so he has to keep trudging on.
Gloomy symbols abound. The crow, who makes several appearances, seems to signify death. Growling dogs may represent forebodings of death. Anyone with imagination can come up with quite a few more.
Taken by themselves, the poems seem maudlin. What transforms them is the extraordinary dramatic impact and sheer beauty of Schubert’s music.
Despite the fact that the cycle is widely viewed as one of the great masterworks of music, performances tend to be rare, certainly around here. In several decades of concert-going, I can recall only three live performances of the complete Winterreise in this area.
One of them was on Sunday in Denton, and its striking success made a long wait seem worth it. The performance took place in Winspear Hall of Murchison Performing Arts Center at the University of North Texas. The artists were baritone Jeffrey Snider and pianist Harold Heiberg. Snider is head of vocal studies at UNT and Heiberg is retired from the UNT College of Music faculty.
Snider used his innately pleasant voice to create a subtle and emotionally charged performance. His physical approach is understated — indeed, he sings with his hands straight down at his sides — but his sense of musical drama more than compensates. Although the Winspear Hall is really too big for a song recital, Snider projected enough power to fill the hall when that was appropriate.
It would be incorrect to call Heiberg his “accompanist.” That implies a secondary position. In Schubert’s Winterreise the piano part is so complex and so integral to the performance that the pianist is a full partner of the vocal soloist. Heiberg contributed his own subtlety and dramatic sense to what was a fully integrated and moving musical experience.
A surprisingly sizable audience (lieder recitals are hardly known as big crowd draws) reacted with enthusiasm.