For the last few months I’ve been reading Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, an absolutely terrific book that Ian Bostridge has written about Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle.Bostridge, as you know, is a British tenor who has delivered extremely insightful performances and recordings of a broad swatch of other vocal literature that includes Winterreise.Beautifully sung, too.
I am really on board with Bostridge about all that, and I am eager to learn more from him in the pages to come. What stopped me short, however, was his suggestion that the cycle’s protagonist is probably a young tutor who has left a teaching position with a family. Bostridge points out that young scholars in Schubert’s time often worked as tutors. They lived with well-to-do families, taught their children, and could be dismissed without having next positions to move to. It is not impossible that a tutor, like the central character in this song cycle, fell in love with one of his students – and maybe that his affection for such a student was the reason his sponsor family required him to leave.
Let’s watch Ian Bostridge and pianist Julius Drake perform the complete cycle.
The problem for me is that the image of a young tutor heading out into the world, possibly accurate thought it might be, is at odds with the image of the protagonist that my imagination has created over more than 30 years of being close to the song cycle. Back when I began to study and sing the cycle when I was in conservatory and to work on it with coaches and to listen to many recordings and performances, my mind conjured up a kind of everyman protagonist – an ill-defined, aging, gray-toned, nearly golem-like hulk of a man who wanders off into a Winter landscape to die.A young tutor? Well, possibly. But is that figure preferable to mine? (I never did perform the cycle in public; perhaps if I had, some new insights might have come to me.)
After all, performing musicians take something that is pretty abstract (words and notes on a page) and then, at the moment they perform it, it becomes concrete, at least in the moment when it lives. Paintings and poems aren’t like that. They start out concrete at the moment of their completion, and stay that way.
But is the story of the Winterreisereally the story of a tutor? Should I care? I don’t know if I should, but somehow I do. I prefer my unfocused and undefined wandering man to a tutor – with a satchel of books tucked under his arm, with a hat, maybe? – that has been offered as a replacement.