The first performance of Schubert’s Winterreise took place at the house of Franz von Schober, where the composer lived on the second floor in rooms which were to be his home until he died a year and a half later. Josef von Spaun sets the scene in his Aufzeichnungen über meinen Verkehr mit Franz Schubert (1858):
‘Schubert’s mood had gradually become more gloomy and he seemed strained. When I asked him what the matter was, he merely replied: “You’ll soon hear it and understand”. One day he said to me: “Come to Schober’s today, and I’ll sing you a cycle of chilling songs. I shall be curious to hear what you think of them. They have affected me more than any other songs that I have written”. He then sang through the entire Winterreise with much emotion in his voice. We were utterly taken aback by the gloomy mood of these songs, and Schober said that there was only one song he cared for, ‘Der Lindenbaum’. Schubert merely replied: “I like these songs more than all the others, and the day will come when you shall like them too”.’
Much has been written about that first performance and the cool reception accorded the songs by Schubert’s usually enthusiastic friends, and much of it is not entirely accurate. It was Schober alone among the privileged gathering who liked only one song, 5 ‘Der Lindenbaum’ – and that is not surprising. Of all Schubert’s friends Schober was perhaps the least sophisticated, musically, and in the famous picture by Moritz von Schwind, Schubert-Abend bei Josef von Spaun, he is the only guest not attending to the music – the young lady to his right clearly offered alternative entertainment. Spaun, in his memoirs, merely states that the gathering was ‘verblüfft’, astonished, taken aback. The question, therefore, is not so much why they did not like the songs, as to why they failed to understand them.
Was Schubert’s voice to blame? Marie Wagner tells us that, although no one ever sang Schubert songs like Schubert, it was always ‘without a voice’. But would that have disconcerted them at Schober’s? They were, after all, used to his voix de compositeur. Was it his piano playing, then? Certainly, he was scarcely a professional accompanist, as Hummel’s pupil Ferdinand Hiller makes clear in this assessment of Schubert’s piano playing, written in March 1827, at the very time of that first performance of Winterreise:
‘Schubert’s piano playing, in spite of a not inconsiderable fluency, was very far from being that of a master.’
On the other hand, many contemporaries testify that, despite this lack of technique, there was something inimitable and inspiring about his playing.
No, we must look elsewhere. They were not thrown by Schubert’s voice or his playing at that private premiere of Winterreise. It was the novelty that nonplussed them. Schober and his friends probably had ringing in their ears the Romantic outcome of Die schöne Müllerin, where death provides the craved-for consolation, and they may have recalled the triumphant, trumpet-like passage from ‘Trockne Blumen’, which heralds the moment when the miller convinces himself that his love is returned:
‘Dann, Blümlein alle,
Der Mai ist kommen,
Der Winter ist aus!’
They were almost certainly expecting the cycle to bear some resemblance to Die schöne Müllerin – even admirers are rarely prepared for pioneering. The resemblances, however, are minimal. Die schöne Müllerin has a real plot, three deftly drawn protagonists, and all events are seen through the eyes of the young miller. Winterreise is virtually devoid of plot. Nothing happens. No-one penetrates the mind of the lonely wanderer, except perhaps the wretched hurdy-gurdy man of the final song. The drama is interior and takes place before 1 ‘Gute Nacht’ begins. And the outcome is not only infinitely more tragic, but infinitely tragic too. Winter, in Winterreise, is never-ending. The hero does not die, there is no refuge in the Wirtshaus of Death, no Wagnerian redemption through love. The hero’s pain is infinite, as it was for Büchner’s Lenz. They were not prepared for such gloom, at Schober’s.
And then, where had the Bewegung of Die schöne Müllerin gone, that forward momentum which propels the miller on his way at the end of ‘Das Wandern’ and, intermittently, during the whole cycle? 1 ‘Gute Nacht’, it’s true, starts with a walking motive, and there’s talk of walking and journeying throughout; but unlike ‘Das Wandern’, which allows no ritardando, ‘Gute Nacht’ ends diminuendo. As in many of the Winterreise songs, there is no forward thrust. Postlude repeats prelude, as though there had been no development, as though nothing had changed, as though no progress had been achieved. 10 ‘Rast’, 15 ‘Die Krähe’, and 21 ‘Das Wirtshaus’ all have this circular pattern, while other songs, such as 7 ‘Auf Dem Flusse’, 12 ‘Einsamkeit’ and 20 ‘Der Wegweiser’ end indeterminately, as if hanging in the air. And the tempi! None of the Munterkeit, the briskness and gaiety of Die schöne Müllerin now. 1 ‘Gute Nacht’,
7 ‘Auf dem Flusse’, 10‘Rast’ and 20 ‘Der Wegweiser’ were marked mäßig on the manuscript that evening (actually, 1 ‘Gute Nacht’ was marked mäßig, in gehender Bewegung, but Schubert, in his copy for the printer, later omitted ‘moderately, at a walking pace’; 15 ‘Die Krähe’ bore the marking etwas langsam, 12 ‘Einsamkeit’ langsam and 21 ‘Das Wirtshaus’, that ultimate, chilling rejection, sehr langsam). And the preponderance of minor keys must have perplexed the select audience, not to mention the uncanny, inexplicable way Schubert made major sound sadder than minor, as in the modulation to D major in the last verse of 1 ‘Gute Nacht’, the return to F major at the close of 21‘Das Wirtshaus’, and the lento sections of 11 ‘Frühlingstraum’. There were also those flashes of retrospective happiness to accentuate present despair. Whether Schubert knew the Inferno is unclear, but there are few works that illustrate so powerfully the truth of Dante’s
‘Nessun maggior dolore
che ricordarsi del tempo felice
ne la miseria’
(‘There is no greater sorrow
than to recall happiness
in times of misery’)
as Schubert’s Winterreise. Evocations of past ecstasy proliferate during the first half of the cycle in 1 ‘Gute Nacht’, 4 ‘Erstarrung’, 5 ‘Der Lindenbaum’, 7 ‘Auf dem Flusse’, 8 ‘Rückblick’ and 11 ‘Frühlingstraum’, dwindle in Part II (13 ‘Die Post’ and 19 ‘Täuschung’), then cease and yield to a bleakness unmitigated by fond memory. They were not prepared for it, at Schober’s.
They should have been.
Mayrhofer in his Erinnerungen (‘Memories’) describes Schubert’s condition during this period:
‘He had been long and gravely ill,
had suffered shattering
experiences; life for him had lost
its rosy colour. Winter had set in.’
And Spaun relates:
‘I have no doubt that the turmoil
in which he composed his most
beautiful songs, and in particular
Winterreise, contributed to his
Although such statements were made years after with hindsight, his closest friends must have known about Schubert’s syphilis. Schober, von Schwind, Spaun, Mayrhofer and others all received letters which complained of ill health; as early as 8 May 1823 he had written that harrowing poem, Mein Gebet, (‘My prayer’), which pleads for an immediate release from physical torment; and on 31 March 1824 he had poured out his soul in a letter to his painter friend Leopold Kupelwieser:
‘In a word, I feel myself
to be the most unhappy and
wretched creature in the world.
Imagine a man, whose health
will never be right again;
imagine a man, I say, whose
most brilliant hopes have
come to naught, to whom
the happiness of love and
friendship have nothing to
offer but pain, at best. Well
might I sing now each day:
“My peace is gone, my heart
is sore, never shall I find
peace again.” – for each night,
on retiring to bed, I hope
never to wake again [...]’
That is no run-of-the-mill melancholy or hypochondria. And though Schubert’s friends are guarded in their letters and memoirs, though they respect the social niceties and never mention his disease by name, they recognised Schubert for what he was – a genital leper. That surely is the subtext of the passage about love having ‘nothing to offer but pain, at best’. It also helps explain Schubert’s reaction to Schober’s suggestion in 1827 that he marry Gusti Grünwedel: Schober told a journalist years later how Schubert had leapt up, rushed out without his hat, flushed with anger. When he returned after half an hour, he explained how he had run round St Peter’s church, telling himself over and over again that no happiness was granted him on earth. And yet at Schober’s on that Winterreise evening they were startled by the ‘gloomy mood’ of the songs. Small wonder, when you consider that, ever since Schubert had been treated for syphilis at the time of Die schöne Müllerin, his friends had regularly witnessed his ability to rouse himself from despondency – there is nothing inconsistent about a syphilitic salvaging his own sanity by creating works that brim with happiness. But this time there was no Eflat major Piano Trio, no relief, and his friends were understandably confounded.
Schubert sent one of these friends, the composer Franz Lachner, with the first songs of Winterreise to Haslinger, with the urgent request to bring home the money needed for medicine and food. Lachner tells us that the publisher weighed up the situation and paid – one guilder for each song. But Schubert would not let all the songs go. Here once more is Josef von Spaun to finish the harrowing story:
‘On November 11 he had to take to his bed. Though dangerously ill, he felt no pain and merely complained of weakness. From time to time he became delirious, singing all the while. The few moments of lucidity he spent correcting the proofs to the second part of Winterreise... On 19 November at 3 in the afternoon he passed away.’