2004.02.01 An Experience: Winterreise

An Experience

Translated by Jane Garratt

It is strange that, in the last few years, so many singers have discovered a need to interpret Schubert’s Winterreisse. Would it be naïve now to imagine hearing footsteps in the title of this great cycle? For my part, I tell myself that Schubert’s journey is not a march! Schubert did not write compulsively descriptive journeys in the style of Hugo Wolf. In the leider of Wolf, for example on the poems of Eduard Morike, a spurned cavalryman (hunter?) has to gallop through undergrowth which lashes him as he passes, travelling over hills and valleys with a great noise, halts in a clearing “for a beetlebrowed moment of reflection”, before returning at a faster gallop to his point of departure, with a new resolve, shining with love and in hope of a solution!!!

Winterreisse does not use advantageously the same physicality as Schumann’s traveller in Kerner’s poems. It is true that he has moments of introspection and, as in Winterreisse, the history ends in calmness. But the journey taken by Schubert and Muller is fundamentally psychological. It is true that it contains moments of physical description, reference points if you like, notably the initial departure of the poet and his arrival at the cemetery or his meeting with the old actor (?, player?). Many of the other songs are taken up purely and simply by observation, for example “The Crow” and “”The weather vane”. Am I stressing this point too much? I don’t think so. For me, in any case, the traveller, having calmly closed the bedroom door behind him and left his love for ever, does not need more than a small canvas to satisfy the demands of the text.

I’ve been asked one provocative question more than any other. “What does this work lack that it needs to be danced?” Let me clarify one point immediately: I would venture to say that it would be a serious mistake for a singer to consider replacing a real dancer, fully paid and subsidised.

Trishia Brown and her dancers have developed something which, in part, reflects the somewhat limited ability of a singer to drive himself while he is trying to watch the dancing, and is also forced by my inability to sing in different positions, even upside down. We return to the question “what is this dance for?” Should it above all exhaustively exploit the flexibility and strength of a man? Certainly not!

At the start of this game, Trishia made me understand clearly that she is an abstract choreographer, and that therefore, by definition, she would not be accompanying Muller’s words. So, in the light of these previous discussions, we shouldn’t have the journey of Schubert and Muller made the object of a sullied completely literal description. Nevertheless, as our work developed it became clear that, while certain gestures and movements remained completely abstract, other passages made reference to the psychological process through nuances and implication – without attempting a specific definition.

When singing a specific poem I should be able to contradict this statement by using the gestures to proclaim my right to silence, “the Fifth Amendment”. Should this be surprising? Isn’t this what people do? Our brains were constructed to make models and connections, even when these do not exist. This is also a process that is normal in music: for example in the case when the subject proclaims his happiness, even though the composer expresses severe doubts through the quavering piano or the orchestral accompaniment. It’s why, to my mind, a version with gestures or physical actions as part of the same process, implies contradictions and half-truths which are incontestable and fascinating.

Thus, we return to the question “Why do this?” which I’m putting aside for a moment. First of all I will reply “Why not?” I don’t think that this initiative is destined to create a precedent, or that from now on Trishia has any intention to choreograph one after another song cycle. Next, that the work will survive us, and it will be strengthened by resisting unusual treatments, however numerous they are.  Finally no-one wants to suggest that the standard way of presenting a classical recital has become monotone, or requires an inventive, fresh approach. It would be absurd to pretend that. It’s like saying that the poems of Shakespeare would benefit from an interpretation matched to high-powered exercise routines. That would be “an experience”: an attempt seeking to explain, in a modest and different fashion, our common humanity …  these feelings which, behind the difficulties of life, are those which appear in the visions of poets or composers. And above all, without sentimentality… but with feelings which are common to all of us, behind the stiffness which is the normal interpretation in a song recital.

Simon Keenlyside, February 2004

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