Detours on a Winter’s Journey: Schubert’s Winterreise D.911 in nineteenth-century concerts

Loges, N. (2020) Detours on a Winter’s Journey: Schubert’s Winterreise D.911 in nineteenth-century concerts. Journal of the American Musicological Society. ISSN 0003-0139 (print) 1547-3848 (online) (In Press)


"For some time Schubert appeared very upset and melancholy. When I asked him what was troubling him, he would say only, “Soon you will hear and understand.” One day he said to me, “Come over to Schober’s today, and I will sing you a cycle of horrifying songs. I am anxious to know what you will say about them. They have cost me more effort than any of my other songs.” So he sang the entire Winterreise through to us in a voice full of emotion." In 1858, Schubert’s friend Josef von Spaun published a memoir of Schubert which included this recollection of the composer’s own performance of his Winterreise D. 911. Spaun’s marvellously portentous account is quoted in nearly every programme and recording liner note of the work, and many assume he meant all twenty-four songs in the cycle, roughly 75 uninterrupted minutes of music, for a rapt, silent audience – in other words, a standard, modern performance. However, Spaun’s emotive recollection raises many questions. The first concerns what Spaun meant by the “complete Winterreise,” and this depends on the timing of this performance, which cannot be established. As many scholars have observed, Schubert most likely only sang the twelve songs he had initially composed. Susan Youens recounts that the autograph manuscript of these twelve songs is dated February 1827; if Spaun’s recollection really did refer to the entire cycle of twenty-four, then the performance might have taken place in autumn that year. Against this, as Youens points out, John Reed questions the likelihood of Schubert keeping the earlier twelve songs from his friends for so long, especially since they would be published in January of the following year. We simply cannot know. But this is only the first question, since, regardless of how many songs were sung, Schubert’s performance most probably included any or all of the following typical performance practices of his day: repetition of songs; omission of verses; interpolations of other music; improvisation between numbers; and breaks for refreshment, discussion and applause. This reality is acknowledged within scholarship, but only in the most general terms, and its implications for our understanding of the work remain unexplored.

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