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A Winter's Journey

Allan Clayton stands in front of a piano at which Kate Golla sits, with a pink landscape by Fred Williams OBE projected on a screen behind them

As a production of Schubert’s Winterreise travels halfway across the globe, we explore the universality of its themes.

Winterreise is a portrait in landscape. In this version, the luminous Australian landscapes of Fred Williams offer the wanderer no more comfort than the snowy European panoramas evoked by Schubert and Müller. By surrounding this Romantic-era winter journey with Williams’s 20th-century images, we make no attempt to transplant the action from northern to southern hemisphere; rather, we aim to celebrate the timelessness and universality of Schubert’s great work.

The description ’song-cycle’ suits Schubert’s Winterreise both literally and metaphorically. The wanderer’s obsessive journeying through these 24 songs leads him not to an end but rather an inescapable return to the beginning. In the final, exhausted stanza he invites the shabby organ-grinder – perhaps his alter-ego? – to wander alongside him, accompanying his song. This sense of an unending journey underpins the monodrama, offering a portal to its staged performance and an insight into the wanderer’s relationship with the audience.

The narrative of Winterreise is in the mind of the wanderer. The randomness of the song sequence makes his storytelling erratic, confessional, compulsive. He needs us to try and understand his outsider mind. He seeks our empathy for his inner struggles, yet is unapologetic about his strange choices, his pain, his outbursts, his odd behaviour, all set against an indifferent landscape. This is indeed a profoundly troubled man, burning with bitterness and shame at society’s rejection, at being pitied by his former lover’s family. As he walks, he talks to the wind, the ice, the trees, the frozen river, his tears and – constantly – to his own heart. The imagery he conjures up is disturbing: the town’s ’crows’ throwing snowballs and hailstones at him; his own disembodied heart under the river ice. He is fascinated by a crow wheeling overhead and is darkly amused at the prospect of being eaten as carrion. There is an anarchic wildness in his solitude yet, in contrast, tenderness in his song to the linden tree, and rapture in the prayer-like, though hallucinatory, ’Die Nebensonnen’.

To turn this internal chaos into a dramatic arc there is no finer singer/actor than Allan Clayton. Perhaps there is something of Hamlet – another of Clayton’s outsiders as powerfully conjured in Brett Dean’s opera of the same name – in the wanderer’s existential angst. No matter what the setting, the enigma of Winterreise flows from the fact that, from its first performance in 1828 to today’s in the digital age, the character of the wanderer remains unknowable, his journey emotionally epic, Schubert’s music exquisite.

Lindy Hume director


About the music:

The lieder (songs) of Franz Schubert lie at the foundation of the art-song genre itself; and at the pinnacle of Schubert’s prodigious output in this field stands Winterreise, a song-cycle remarkable for its vivid musical portraits of the human heart smarting from the pains of love lost, and stoically resigned to the approach of death.

Conceived as a journey into the cold of winter, it sets to music a selection of poems by Wilhelm Müller published in 1823 and 1824 under the title 77 Poems from the Posthumous Papers of a Travelling Horn- Player. Unlike the composer’s previous song-cycle Die schöne Müllerin (setting texts by the same poet), Winterreise presents more a series of vignettes than a plot, as all of the important action has taken place before the narration begins. The narrator–singer is heard in conversation with his own heart, by turns reflective, questioning, ironic and finally resigned. In this speculative frame of mind, he drifts fluidly between the world of his dreams and the bitter reality he faces.

At issue is a love affair gone wrong. The wanderer’s beloved has broken off their relationship to marry a richer man, leaving him despairing and alone with his thoughts, which travel through dark territory as he traverses village and country settings after leaving her house.

The work was composed in two separate parts in 1827, the year before Schubert’s death, making the terminal illness from which he was suffering one obvious point of reference. But the poems from Wilhelm Müller’s collection provide apt imagery for such a presentation of moods, with their recurring themes of loneliness and isolation, watchwords of the emerging Romantic movement in art.

The cast of characters with whom the narrator interacts are elements of the natural landscape (sun, wind, trees and leaves, flowers, rivers and snow, crows and ravens), elements that form symbolic company for his journey. Schubert’s achievement in setting these poems is to give musical life to these images, not only in the contours of the singer’s melody, but especially in the pictorial vividness of the piano score. Frequently, the piano serves as an equal partner, conjuring, through the vividness of Schubert’s writing, the external surroundings through which the singer travels.

And yet a paradox pervades this piano score. It is both richly allusive and unusually austere. Benjamin Britten, in discussing Schubert’s artistry, outlined the performers’ challenge in these terms:

’One of the most alarming things I always find, when performing this work, is that there is actually so little on the page. He gets the most extraordinary moods and atmospheres with so few notes. And there aren’t any gloriously wishy-washy arpeggios to help you. You’ve got to create the mood by these few chords. He leaves it all very much up to the performers.’

© Donald G Gíslason
Vancouver Recital Society

Programme and performers

Franz Schubert Winterreise
1. Gute Nacht (Good night)
2. Die Wetterfahne (The weathervane)
3. Gefror’ne Tränen (Frozen tears)
4. Erstarrung (Numbness)
5. Der Lindenbaum (The linden tree)
6. Wasserflut (Flood)
7. Auf dem Flusse (On the river)
8. Rückblick (A backwards glance)
9. Irrlicht (Will-o’-the-wisp)
10. Rast (Rest)
11. Frühlingstraum (Dream of Spring)
12. Einsamkeit (Loneliness)
13. Die Post (The mail-coach)
14. Der greise Kopf (The hoary head)
15. Der Krähe (The crow)
16. Letzte Hoffnung (Last hope)
17. Im Dorfe (In the village)
18. Der stürmische Morgen (The stormy morning)
19. Täuschung (Delusion)
20. Der Wegweiser (The signpost)
21. Das Wirtshaus (The inn)
22. Mut! (Courage!)
23. Die Nebensonnen (Phantom suns)
24. Der Leiermann (The organ-grinder)

Allan Clayton tenor
Kate Golla piano

Lindy Hume director
David Bergman videographer
Fred Williams OBE (1927–1982) images
Paul Kildea artistic director


Wilhelm Müller (1794–1827)

Translations © Richard Wigmore

Artist biographies