Winterreise – Franz Schubert / Wilhelm Müller

Posted on April 16, 2013


In the last few days I have been listening to the magnificent song cycle Winterreise composed by Schubert inspired by 24 thematically connected poems of Wilhelm Müller. The first twelve poems, the ones that initially inspired Schubert  were published in 1823 and Schubert composed the first twelve songs in February 1827 (published in January 1828). Schubert discovered the last twelve songs after he composed the music for the first ones, which he set in music in October, entitled Fortzetsung (Continuation). He finished the full cycle shortly before he died in November 1828 and the last twelve songs were published in December in the same year. The songs are usually sung by a tenor singer (though they can be transposed to other vocal registers), accompanied by piano. The song cycle, together with Scubert’s earlier cycle Die schöne Müllerine set the standards for artistic singing in the nineteenth century and they are considered masterpieces of dramatic depth matching the operatic genre.


Winterriese depicts the solitary journey of a young man through a wintry landscape, in parallel with his inner journey through deception, sorrow, alienation, memories of love, fantasties of hope and death, and finally, reconciliation. He leaves the house where he found the love of a beautiful girl and where he lived with her and her parents, after he finds out about her intention to marry someone else, a wealthy man. He leaves the house suddenly at night, leaving just a short goodby message on the door. From this point he becomes a total stranger to the people living in their warm houses dreaming about joys and pleasantries of everiday life. As he walks to a town he can hear the post-horn calling, but there is no letter for him, no good news comming his way. All the elements of the landscape, the snow-covered meadow, the frozen river, the path where he walks alone, the linden tree in the dark, the ravens croaking and the dogs barking,  symbolise his dark feelings. Memories of happiness, togetherness with  his lover, the spring, flowers, larks and nightingales pop up in his mind obsessively only to make his pain and despair more overwhelming. In his longing for love he is looking back into the past, dreaming about turning winter into spring, dissolving the snow with his tears to find her lover’s footsteps among last years blooming flowers and green grass. Passing by the linden tree under which he used to find rest in the middle of happy daydreaming he could hear the rustling of its branches, calling him to find peace again, but this time it would be a never ending sleep. The river, like his passionate heart is locked in a frosty cage. His memories of happines do not bring him any joy, but lead him off the trodden path, like ghostlight. The only future he can think of in this winter cold and solitude is death. Crows circle above his head, as if awaiting his end. He walks past a cemetery (The Wayside Inn), but even this place is closed in front of him, he is so alieanted from humankind. The only creature he can contemplate with a sense of communion is the organ-grinder behind the village, who plays his instrument with a smile in spite of being long forgotten  by people, walking barefoot in the winter, with an empty saucer.


Schubert / Müller – Winterriese. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (vocal), Gerald Moore (piano)

The character depicted in this song cycle becomes a romantic hero through the intensity of his passion and his pure love, in spite of his vulnerability and naivity. Loosing what was the dearest thing for him, the love of his beloved woman, he takes decisive action without hesitation, facing the elements far from any shelter, facing decline and solitude. The songs create overwhelming emotions by powerful visual imagery. Equally important is the instrumental music which produces an atmosphere of melancholy and longing by simple chords and melodies that need to be played in a heartfelt manner, in concordance with the spoken words. The piano immitates the sounds of the environment, giving them an eery and dark colorature – e.g. the sound of the wind blowing, shivering, the weathervane turning, dogs barking, crows croaking, the repititive tune of the hurdy-gurdy. By words and music combined together these songs realise a timeless, universal and crystal clear depiction of the dramatic journey of the soul facing major loss.

An english translation of the lyrics can be found in the following link:

Winterreise – English translation

Posted in: Part 3