Ian Bostridge: Musical Wanderer
For decades, Ian Bostridge has been enraptured by Franz Schubert’s “Winterreise.” The British tenor has found the song cycle to be as effervescent and relevant now as it was when it was first composed two centuries ago.
Ian Bostridge is an internationally renowned tenor. He has performed at the Salzburg, Edinburgh, Munich, Vienna, St Petersburg, Aldeburgh and Schwarzenberg Schubertiade Festivals; worked with orchestras in Berlin, London, Vienna, Boston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere; and performed at such premiere venues as Carnegie Hall, Westminster Abbey, and Milan’s Teatro alla Scala. His recordings have been nominated for 15 Grammy Awards and won numerous international prizes.
Bostridge received a prestigious Queen’s Scholarship at Westminster School before completing degrees at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. He began singing professionally while completing his Ph.D. thesis on 17th and 18th century witchcraft at Oxford, later published as a monograph. He is best known for his performances of Franz Schubert’s Winterreise, subject of a 1997 film and his book Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, which won the Duff Cooper Prize in 2015. He was awarded a CBE in 2004.
(Excerpt from Franz Schubert’s My Dream manuscript):
With a heart filled with endless love for those who scorned me, I … wandered far away. For many and many a year I sang songs. Whenever I tried to sing of love, it turned to pain. And again, when I tried to sing of pain, it turned to love.
Today, 193 years after it was composed, Franz Schubert’s, Winterreise or ”Winter Journey,” remains one of the most performed song cycles. This collection of poems set to music unfolds in 24 parts and tells the story of a mysterious man wandering through the woods, mourning his lost love, searching for connection, enlightenment and healing. And though the 75-minute piece is known for being melancholy, the wanderer does not only wallow, he also has a sense of humor.
Ian Bostridge: And he is never really gloomy because the scene as the voice in the poems becomes aware that he’s being gloomy, he starts to…
AJC: Shake out of it.
Bostridge: Shake out of it, and well, starts to question himself and starts to think, well, “Why am I being like this?” He is examining himself and there’s something incredibly modern about it in that way, it’s a mixture of the sort of gallows humor and quirkiness and sort of deep existential anxiety.
The celebrated British tenor and scholar, Ian Bostridge, has been singing and contemplating Winterreise since he was 20 years old. In 1994, when he was 30, he starred in a film version of it. 26 years later, the piece remains as captivating and as mysterious to him as ever.
Bostridge: And they are only possibilities because it is such an open-ended work, which is one of its powers and one of its strengths but I think it’s also a work in which you can hang all sorts of possibilities.
Bostridge documents his lifelong fascination with Winterreise in his 2014 book, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy Of An obsession. In it, the tenor draws parallels between the modern world and Schubert’s experiences in the 1800s. Then as now, greed and materialism was rank, a fact Schubert’s wanderer laments while making his way through a quiet town, full of ordinary selfish people.
Bostridge: “Im Dorfe,” which is the 17th song, which is about, it starts with a sort of rumbling noise and the piano, and he’s approaching a village and he can hear the chains rattling, the dogs barking and then he imagines, I suppose, that the people in their beds are snoring and the piano is imitating all these noises by this sort of rumbling that it’s doing. And then he talks about all the dreams that they’ve had while they’re asleep and how, when they wake up, they hope to find all these dreams, on the things that they’ve had in these dreams on their pillows and it’s a sort of, somebody outside this existence is imagining these people dreaming about having stuff. And I suppose it’s a criticism of consumerist society, the desire to possess stuff. And that for me, connects to how we are now and how we just want, you know, the economy is geared around the desire to have stuff, and we have to want to have stuff and get more stuff because otherwise everything seizes up and it’s all a bit of a dream.
Among the activities of Schubert and his cohort of rebellious artist friends, they shared music at Schubertiads, intimate concerts hosted in the private homes of Schubert’s friends and peers. One of them being Ignaz Von Sonnleithner, the founder of the Society of Music Friends of the Austrian Imperial State. But in 1820, the Austrian government caught wind of their revolutionary activities and arrested Schubert and four of his friends. One of them, the poet, Johann Senn, was jailed, then exiled from Vienna. The others, including Schubert were simply reprimanded for using hostile language against officials. But this didn’t cow Franz Schubert. For the rest of his life, which would last a mere eight years, the composer used his art to express his yearning for freedom, from the oppression of a conservative status quo. But Schubert was also a flawed man. During the summer of 1818, he worked as a music tutor for the teenaged daughter of the Hungarian Count, Johann Karl Esterházy, and developed a strong unrequited affection for the youngest Countess, Caroline, eight years his junior. Legend has it that Schubert wrote many a complicated piano duet, just so his hands could intertwine with hers. After she rejected him, he quit the job. In Anatomy of an Obsession, Bostridge cites this infatuation as a deeply felt connection between Schubert and his wanderer. They were both men in exile, nursing broken hearts.
Bostridge: So for example, in the first song, it did occasionally worry me to think about, “Why is this young man leaving the house late at night in the 1820s?” It seems a bit odd that this guy is in this house and that he’s fallen in love with a girl and, “Who is he?” And I, it became clear to me researching it and thinking about it, that he’s one of the great experiences of sort of, young, well-educated men in that period, was working as a house tutor and all the great philosophers and poets of the period, they all worked as private house tutors in families and quite often it got a bit messy.
Schubert died age 31 in 1828, only a year after Winterreise was published. Nearly 200 years on, the work continues to resonate, thanks to the universally human story it tells and to those like Ian Bostridge, who continue to squeeze new meaning from it with each fresh listening, each new performance.
Bostridge: And I suppose, when I’m doing something like Winterreise, what I’d say is that it’s a collision between the work, me and the audience and it’s like, it sort of feels like sleepwalking, really, you start the piece and you go into it, you don’t quite know where you’re going to end up because, in the course of singing the piece, all sorts of things may you come across, new ideas, new light that’s cast on the personality of the wanderer in the cycle and your own personality and it’s different every time. There’s a song called “Das Wirtshaus” which really means ”The Pub”, towards the end of the cycle, which is where the wanderer reaches the graveyard and he thinks that it is a pub and he wants to lie down and go to sleep, not get up again but he sort of pretends there’s an innkeeper there and the innkeeper won’t let him get in and he goes off. And there was just one particular occasion when I suddenly thought that— and it was a very macabre thought—but I thought of all the members of the audience being like gravestones in a graveyard, so, and that carried a particular sort of threat and was an interesting way of looking at it.
Franz Schubert’s Winterreise begins with an ending. The first song in the cycle is a farewell that forces him to greet the unknown, to find out what’s next.
Bostridge: “Gute Nacht.” Good night is very often the end of the tale, isn’t it? It’s what we say to children when the bedtime story is finished, it has something gentle about it and this is a gentle song, a song, which in rehearsal or in performance, I always experience as both an ending to something, and also a prelude to the cycle proper. Marked down in dynamic and hushed pretty much throughout, as the wanderer creeps away from the household in which he has loved and somehow lost.