Ian Bostridge discusses his new book ‘Schubert’s Winter Journey: anatomy of an obsession’

Author: Charlotte Gardner

Your book is subtitled “Anatomy of an obsession”, so the first question has to be, how deep is this obsession, and how long ago did it start?
It goes back a long way, back to when when I was eighteen or nineteen. I’d been obsessed with Schubert’s lieder for some time, but I didn’t sing Winterreise until I was that age, and I suppose it was from then on that I kept on coming back to it, and wanting to find new ways of doing it.

What was it about the cycle that made you bond with it?
It speaks to a lot of the same things that late adolescents are preoccupied with; it’s an ancestor of the pop music redolent of sitting on your own in your room and nurturing your wound. So, it’s partly that. Also, it always seemed to have a depth of expression beyond its words which is difficult to describe.

In some ways, a collection of songs about an early Nineteenth Century man at the end of a love affair doesn’t sound like a recipe for posterity. And yet, here we are! How is it that it still chimes with our 21st Century sensibilities?
Well I think partly because of this connection between Schubert and the modern pop song. It’s about love, it’s about lost love, and it seems to be somehow (and this is going to sound pretentious…) constitutive of modern subjectivity. In other words, it’s how we all think about ourselves as unitary selves; we experience the joys and disappointments of love, and music both expresses that for us, and helps us to piece that together, and therefore to piece ourselves together. That’s one reason.

And the other reason is that, I think in the end, the cycle goes far beyond that. The cycle is ostensibly the consequence of a love affair that has somehow gone wrong, but what’s interesting is that actually we don’t know what’s gone wrong: we don’t know whether she chucked him, or he chucked her, or whether he couldn’t cope, or if the family threw him out. It’s left quite uncertain. So, we can project our own emotions onto it, and our own feelings about it.

It then also moves beyond even that, out into this white, empty landscape, and becomes something quite abstract that’s about feeling not at home in the world. And the idea of feeling not at the home in the world comes out of where Schubert and the poet Müller were in the 1820s, and indeed where their audience was in terms of the German, and the more general, human experience of the time. In fact, it’s a change that’s very comparable to the changes going on now, in that I think people felt very uncomfortable in the 1820s because everything was becoming marketised. The previous great canonical composers had either had a position in the church, or an aristocratic patron. By contrast, Schubert functioned in the market, and a lot of his anxiety came out of that. A lot of his edginess too, and I think you feel that in this cycle. You particularly see it in the last song, “Der Leiermann” (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man): the early Nineteenth Century feeling that man is not at home in the universe. “Alienation” is the word.

You mentioned the ambiguity of the protagonist’s situation, and I found it fascinating how, in the book, you’ve suggested some possible back stories for him. How important do you think it is for you as a performer, or for your audience, to have those ideas running through the mind?
I think it just helps you find a way in. As a singer, it helps to have various ways of looking at it, because you want to vary it and to have different attitudes to the material. It doesn’t mean that people can read off your performance that you’ve been thinking about private tutors in the 1820s, but I do think that it helps you to give the words different emphases, and to find new things in them. Similarly for the audience, if they’re already familiar with the cycle, it will help them to find new ways of thinking about it, and for newcomers the ideas may be a way in. I always think that it’s a good thing to generate an embroidery around a piece that’s so abstract. It helps you to get a hold on it.

Definitely. Moving on to your own performances of the cycle, you mention in the book your first public performance of it, in 1985, in front of a small audience of friends and fellows in the President’s lodgings at St. John’s College, Oxford. What do you remember of that concert? Really, you were presenting it there in its purest form, i.e. a salon performance, which is how it would have originally been heard. Did it feel special at the time?
I wasn’t a professional singer at the time. I just loved this music, and I suppose I just leapt into it without really knowing. God knows how I sang it because I had no vocal technique, and I was used to singing along to my Fischer-Dieskau recording, who’s a baritone. The audience was unbelievably small, and I don’t know how I related to them. They were so close, I can’t believe it wasn’t slightly embarassing!

You now perform it to concert halls. How do you retain that intimacy when, even at a venue such as the Wigmore Hall, there are still an awful lot of people there.
You try and sing as if to one person. You try and speak to them. I think that’s true even in a really big hall. There’s also a moving backwards and forwards between addressing them, and talking to yourself. That’s part of the dynamic of a recital, and indeed what’s interesting about it.

You’ve performed it over one hundred times since that first performance in 1985. How has your relationship with it changed over the years?
I think it’s got more dramatic. I was really influenced by a film I did of it in 1997, with the director David Alden. He pushed it in a very expressionistic direction, and at times I thought he went too far, but actually I think I’ve absorbed a lot of that. I think it’s important to see the cycle as a piece of theatre, albeit a very particular sort of austere piece like a Beckett monologue, and to bring it alive as much as that. If you sing a lot of opera, there’s a danger of seeing Winterreise as different and detached, and it’s not. If anything, it’s more intense. To be standing on stage for seventy or seventy five minutes and delivering, you’ve got to be very intense, or otherwise people just go to sleep!

You’re performing it with Thomas Adès at the moment. What has that partnership brought to your understanding of the work?
Well, partly he’s a wonderful accompanist and pianist, with a huge dynamic range: he can play very, very quietly without losing definition, and with a lot of colours.

Also, he’s looked very closely at the facsimile of the original manuscript, and found some really interesting things that aren’t in the printed score, but which are clearly meant by Schubert. There are some really strange dissonant notes and rhythms that were ironed out in the processes of publication, but which he’s reinserted, and that’s fascinating. Also, he’s just really fun to be with. He’s a wonderful companion.

And what satisfactions does the piece give you as a singer? You’ve performed it so many times. What keeps you coming back?
Well, there’s a basic satisfaction when you get to the end of it, which is that you’ve been onstage for seventy minutes. I used to not be able to get to the end properly; I came into singing as an amateur –  I’d been doing it as a hobby – and so I had to learn my technique in public, and Winterreise was a really long piece for me. I got so worked up by it that I would push too much air through my chords and barely get to the end. Somehow though, Winterriese is a piece (and maybe this is a shameful reason for liking it!) where you can get away with that, because it’s a piece where exhaustion comes in to the end of the recital. Still, one of the satisfactions of singing it now is that I know how to sing it better, so I can do more with it intentionally.

Also, it’s just the attraction of it being a piece that has an inimitable depth that’s very difficult to put your finger on, except by talking around it. It changes, too: it’s different each time you do it. It depends on what sort of day you’ve had, what ideas come to you as you’re delivering it, what the audience is like, what the acoustics are like… It’s never boring, ever, which is a sure sign that it’s a good piece.

Returning to the book now, in music we’re often warned against attributing too much of a composer’s life to their music. So, just because Mozart wrote a symphony in G minor, it doesn’t necessarily mean he was in the depths of depression as he wrote it. With Winterreise, though, do we need to take into account Schubert’s life, and where he was emotionally, for our understanding of the piece?
Schubert writes a lot about loneliness and the idea of being alone all through his life, because it was a cultural obsession, and that’s something you need to analyse if you’re going to understand Winterreise. At the same time, it cannot but be the case that the fact that Schubert contracted syphilis in late 1822 had an impact on his life and what he wanted to write about. On a practical level, it also accelerated how much he wrote in those last years of his life: he wrote an enormous amount of music because he wanted to say all the things he needed to say, I suppose. So, I think it is important to look at a composer’s life experience and biography, because that’s what artists do. There’s almost an idea that art is some sort of metaphysical activity that happens away from human beings, but actually art is grounded in human experience. If it’s not about human experience, it’s nothing. What else can it be about?

You’re not musically trained in the traditional sense. You don’t have a music degree. Do you think that was an advantage when writing this book?
Up to a point, because I think it means I have to really understand something in order to put it across. Sometimes I read musicological analysis, and sometimes I can understand it, whilst other times it’s completely opaque to me. I think it’s interesting that now, in academic musical circles, there’s an increasing view that it isn’t actually what’s important. So, if people who do have intense musical training and knowledge don’t sit in a concert following the changes in complicated key relationships, and if the audience aren’t hearing them, and as far as we can tell very often that’s not what the composers are interested in, then it seems a bit beside the point in a way.

Finally, what do you want readers to gain from your book?
For people who know the piece, that they can keep going back to it and finding new things. I suppose my biggest hope, though, is that the people who don’t know the piece at all, or find it off-putting, can find a way into it. For some reason, classical music is slightly detached from what people feel they should know about, and even more so the tradition of lieder. Lieder is a sort of niche, but actually it’s an incredibly important expression of European sensibility in the Nineteenth Century. If we want to understand where we come from, and even where we’re going to, then Winterreise is a piece we need to reckon with.

‘Schubert’s Winter Journey: anatomy of an obsession’ by Ian Bostridge is published this month by Faber and Faber and by Knopf in January 2015.

Ian continues his Winterreise recital tour with Thomas Adès in 2015 with performance at La Scala (5 January) and the Barbican Centre, London (12 January).

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