Winterreise Article

On the interpretation of "Die Winterreise"

Gute Nacht

Imagine that you are this man who is on the verge of complete disintegration. It is a cold winter night. A clear moon illuminates the snow-covered landscape with its cold white light. You have decided to leave during the night - for if you left in daylight, you might see her, from whom you are fleeing, and perhaps if you should see her again you would weaken and would not find the strength to go. But you can no longer bear the torture of being near her. You will lose your mind if you cannot escape from her.

You pass her house. You remember desperately how full of new hope and happiness the spring had seemed to you. Your love had seemed to bring fulfilment. The girl appeared to be devoted to you. Her mother had not opposed your marriage. Now the whole world has changed for you.

Begin the song with great bitterness. In the first lines you should convey the personality of this lonely and desperate man. Your voice, your words, are filled with scorn as you sing - "Das Mädchen sprach von Liebe, die Mutter gar von Eh' ..." Change to an expression of grief with "Nun ist die Welt so trübe".

The third verse has a slightly quickened tempo. "Lass' irre Hunde heulen" should be sung with a kind of desperate contempt. "Die Liebe liebt das Wandern" should convey suppressed scorn. Sing it piano and emphasize the consonants sharply. Give a very slight crescendo to: "Von Einem zu dem Ander'n, Gott hat sie so gemacht". Perhaps in one of the sad quarrels which were the prelude to the end of all your happiness she has said to you - 'What do you expect? I cannot love you forever. God made life that way, you cannot blame me ...' and now again he recalls her flippant answer to his pleading. (The interludes between verses should always be treated as if you were singing them yourself. Your facial expression must reflect the music as if it were floating from your whole being. The listener must have the impression that the cycle is just being created at this moment - that it is you who are writing the poems, you who are composing the music ... Re-creation means: created anew.)

Your face should have an expression of deep sorrow as you begin the last verse. Prepare for it. Look downward during the interlude and then when the key changes slowly raise your head and gaze before you. Imagine that you are passing her home, that you are passing the window behind which she is sleeping, oblivious to your grief and misery. You walk softly lest you disturb her carefree slumber. This last verse can quite rightly and effectively be sung with deep bitterness but I always sang it with the utmost tenderness, delicacy and subtlety. In this cycle there is so much opportunity for outbursts of bitterness and desperation that from the standpoint of building up the cycle I think it is better to sing this verse very piano. It is as if you do not want to touch the wound in your heart by speaking roughly to your beloved even in your thoughts. Sing "sacht, sacht die Türe zu ..." with a breathy piano. End with an expression of infinite pain: "an dich hab' ich gedacht" - especially in the repetition - as if you were saying: 'You cannot know how I thought of you - leaving you ... You do not care. You only think of me with indifference. But my thoughts are so tender, they float through your window to lie like roses at your feet ... But you do not care ...'

Die Wetterfahne

You have left the house of your beloved. You have left her village. But you have no thought of where you are going or what you want to do. You want only to forget, but there is no road which leads to oblivion and peace. One who is possessed will always try to escape from that which possesses him. But it is in vain that you try to escape, for you are possessed by love and this love will not set you free. It holds you bound relentlessly to the one place...

A grey and stormy morning finds you again at the very spot which you are seeking to avoid. Staring at her house with burning eyes, you subconsciously follow the weather-vane as it veers about in the wind.

In the prelude is the violence of the wind, but the violence of your own thoughts is also there. You have lived through so much agony, your thoughts are confused. It seems as if the vane, rattling and squeaking as it whirls, scorns you, scorns the innocent belief which you had in your beloved.

Begin this song with an expression of deep bitterness, of driving force. Avoid sliding - every note, every syllable must be clear cut and devoid of any weakness or sentimentality. Sing strongly until "Ein treues Frauenbild". Then change to piano, as if you were telling a secret - 'Oh, how terrible it is that our hearts can be so weak as to become the victims of changing moods and whims!' They flutter as if the wind were tossing them about, but secretly ... softly.

You do not blame your beloved for leaving you to marry another man. You only blame her parents. It makes it easier to think that it was they who forced her to give you up. You blame their fickle hearts which are like toys in the cruel wind. Sing "was fragen sie" with crescendo until you end in a desperate forte with "eine reiche Braut". The repetition is sung in the same way. Your facial expression should reflect the violence and desperate hopelessness which engulfs you so completely.

Gefror'ne Tränen

Wandering aimlessly along the icy streets and snowswept roads, you feel the tears upon your cheeks, frozen by the icy wind. The first staccato chords of the prelude are like heavy, weary, staggering steps, while the decrescendo (softly ritenuto) is the wakening awareness of reality.

Tears which you weep, without realizing it, become the conscious expression of your inner pain. Sing the beginning very legato and without expression, sing from out of utter emptiness, from a feeling of inner cold, as if your deep pain is submerged beneath the frozen crust of complete hopelessness.

In the short interlude after "dass ich geweinet hab" your icy numbness changes. Bitterness wells within you. Sing with suppressed passion, with mounting dramatic expression until the end - "des ganzen Winter's Eis" which should be sung broadly. In the postlude you sink again into yourself, wandering on, lonely, aimlessly.

Erstarrung

Your wandering has changed into flight. Flight from this terrible emptiness, flight from the aimlessness which yet drives you on. You have been shaken out of your lethargy by the cold wind which blows over the frozen fields. With the quickened tempo of the prelude, you must give the impression of being driven on. A slight bending forward may be helpful in giving this impression but the principal thing is and will always be: feel that you are driven on, feel the cold wind. If you can do this, your expression will be convincing. I must always repeat: only that is convincing which is truly felt.

The two phrases - "ich such' im Schnee vergebens nach ihrer Tritte Spur, wo sie an meinem Arme durchstrich die grüne Flur" should be sung legato. Your remembrance of that happy time is here stronger than any thought of the present. Sing these phrases touched by a soft glow of reminiscence, but at the same time with animation as if you were increasing your pace. Imagine that your steps take on increasing urgency as you hurry on, while your eyes, searching mechanically, sweep over the broad expanse of white snow. But your feeling is pervaded by the glow of memory: "wo sie an meinem Arme durchstrich die grüne Flur." So your singing here must be soft and legato.

In the next verse you return to reality, to passionate desire, desperate grief. Sing it with dramatic fire. Note the two crescendi at "bis ich die Erde, die Erde seh". Feel the passionate restraint in this. There is brooding insanity in this bitter restraint.

In the next verse go back to the sweet pianissimo of remembrance, a pianissimo which is, so to speak, moist with tears. Note the sforzati at "Blumen" and "erstorben", but sing them discreetly. Feel the colourless emptiness in the word "blass". Paint it with consonants and with a very light 'a' as if you were using water colours. Sing ritenuto to the end of the verse.

The crescendo and forte is the transition to the more passionate expression of the next verses. "Wenn meine Schmerzen schweigen, wer sagt mir dann von ihr?" Your grief for your lost beloved is now almost a joy, since it gives you a feeling of contact with her. Your heart seems dead but perhaps it may yet melt like the frozen brook, and the vision of your beloved which it holds may be borne away on the flowing water. Feel the self-torturing pain in these words, this poetic picture, this stormy melody.

At the end the song fades into decrescendo and ritardando as if you yourself are breaking down under the tormenting power of your imagination. Convey the impression of complete exhaustion. Do not forget the little crescendo and decrescendo at the last "dahin".

Der Lindenbaum

You seem to be going around in a circle. You try to get far away but the vicinity in which your beloved lives draws you back like a magnet so that you seem only to wander around and around. So you find yourself back again at the old gate where you have so often sat in the shade of the old lime tree.

You pause in your restless wandering as you suddenly find yourself beside the well under the old tree. You have forgotten all about the winter and its cold. You have forgotten your grief. A quiet peace comes upon you, as if at last you are at home. The first verse should be sung with the greatest simplicity, with warmth) very legato.

Begin the second verse a little more excitedly. At "vorbei in tiefer Nacht" darkness again falls upon you. Your need to continue in your wandering is like a sombre compulsion. Sing this sentence with this thought. Yet the lime tree holds you back. It holds you with a mysterious strength. Sinq "Da hab' ich noch im Dunkel die Augen zugemacht" pianissimo with an expression of surrender. Now the branches speak to you through their rustling: sing this full voice, as if the wind were swelling through the treetop. Sing "komm' her zu mir Geselle" entreatingly. But no: you tear yourself away from your dreams, you will not listen to the tree as it calls you back. Sing with dramatic force, deeply moved: "die kalten Winde", etc. Bring to a highly dramatic climax the last sentence: "ich wendete mich nicht". Make use of the consonants and sing with sharp accentuation, uttering the "nicht" as if you were tearing yourself loose from hands which seek to hold you back. You must give the impression that you are tearing yourself away, never more, no, never more to return.

But the compelling song of the tree is more powerful than your strength of will. It comes to you in your dreams. Sing the last verse with a quieter melancholy and give the last words - "du fändest Ruhe dort" - an alluring pianissimo, full of mystery.

Wasserflut

The important thing here is to be able to bring to life passionate feeling within the framework of a very austere melody. The rhythm must never be broken. The vital connection with the musical phrase can never be sundered. The more rhythmically you sing, the more you will succeed in bringing out the austere character of the song. Sing very quietly and make a glowing crescendo at: "durstig ein das heisse Weh". Accentuate the consonants sharply and stress the triplets. Sing "Wenn die Gräser sprossen wollen" very tenderly. Sing "weht daher ein lauer Wind" with a broad sweep. Your phrasing must float like a breath of wind.

To give too many details or too much advice for this song might lead to destroying the greatness of its line. The interpretation here really needs no explanation.

Auf dem Flusse

The beginning of this song is pervaded by an icy clarity. The prelude conveys the impression of heartbeats throbbing beneath the ice.

Sing the first verse as if you are lost in quiet contemplation, without much expression. It must be sung with exact rhythm and strict attention to the value of every note.

In the second verse "In deine Decke grab' ich" your emotion overflows. Your facial expression is one of dreaming, your voice should be filled with deep warmth. At the end of the verse: "windet sich ein zerbroch'ner Ring," you are overcome by grief. (Emphasize the consonants in "zerbroch'ner".) The throbbing heart beneath the ice seems like your own heart - life flowing beneath a crust of numbness - flooding passion which threatens to burst through the icy surface. Sing the four repetitions of "ob's wohl auch so reissend schwillt" each time with increased drama - with a swelling crescendo. End vigorously.

Rückblick

Again you are in flight, again you are trying to escape. Your wandering has led you back to the very place which you have wanted to avoid. You are drawn back irresistibly, but again you tear yourself away. You have hurried on through the old familiar streets. Everywhere you feel that you are scorned.

The prelude gives the feeling of storm and of senseless racing ahead. Begin with a suppressed but passionate piano and at each "Eis und Schnee" and "die Türme seh" sing a surging and stormy crescendo. Note the sforzati at "Krähe" and "Bäll'." Sing this verse distinctly, almost parlando, and close with a legato at the last "jedem Haus" which leads over into the more measured tempo of the second verse. Reflect in your voice the change of key sing with a softly flowing legato, in a lovely warm piano. Paint with both word and tone: the little town, the feeling of spring, the murmuring brook, the lime tree. Sing the phrase: "da war's gescheh'n um dich Gesell" with a strongly exhaled pianissimo as if with tears of remembrance of all the loveliness which you have lost.

Again the key changes and with it your voice quality. Again restlessness seizes you. Each time, from out of suppressed misery, rises the crescendo which leads into forte: "noch einmal rückwärts seh'n" and "ihrem Hause stille steh'n". In the repetitions both voice and tempo quieten down: sing legato and with a yearning expression. Do not exaggerate the repeated sforzati (zurücke, wanken). Sing them discreetly.

The last "vor ihrem Hause stille steh'n" fades away in a veiled piano, strictly in tempo.

Irrlicht

This song is like a short dramatic scene. Sing it as such. Give this song a very individual character. Colour your voice more darkly and sing with an heroic expression. Give the song a broad, strong swing as you would an aria. Begin very quietly with strong accentuation. Sing with exact rhythm and give each note its exact value. "Jedes Leiden auch sein Grab" should be sung with great warmth of feeling.

You know that your end is not far distant and with it the end of all your grief.

Rast

Your weary steps (heard in the prelude) have led you to a place where you may rest.

You must convey the picture of the tired wanderer who, with complete indifference, feels himself driven on by the raging storm, wandering wherever the wind may drive him. Sing the pianissimo in "der Rücken fühlte keine Last" with a kind of bitter pleasure, but in the next phrase: "der Sturm half fort mich wehen", convey the power of the storm. This is not a power which comes from you, yourself. It is a power which is aiding you, which you must express. So be careful here: the feeling of your inner exhaustion must not be lost through the forte of this phrase. (Perhaps I may make this clearer by saying that the first sentence is like a deep inhaled breath - piano; the second like a released exhaled breath.)

Begin the second verse very quietly. Enunciate the consonants in "So brennen meine Wunden" sharply. Notice the sudden piano after the crescendo: your wound is so painful it hurts you even to mention it.

"Auch du, mein Herz" is filled with bitterness, as if you were saying derisively: 'Generally you are so courageous. But now in the quiet of repose you feel within you the gnawing worm which will consume you'. Sing these lines very distinctly with a brightly coloured quality, making the consonants pointed and sharp. Close with a broad and dramatic forte.

Frühlingstraum

You are lying in the house of a collier where you have found shelter. You cannot wander any further, you must be patient and gather some strength. You are alone, you awaken out of the half sleep of deep exhaustion. The prelude conveys the dreams which pass so entrancingly through your half waking thoughts.

The first verse should be sung with a quietly floating quality, as if you were still under the spell of your lovely dream. Then with your awakening comes grey reality: it is dark and cold and ravens circle ominously about the roof.

You must feel within yourself this awakening to a barren and sombre reality. Sing with force and with a feeling of deep pain. But you are sick and exhausted, you do not have sufficient strength to face reality, so you sink back, forgetting your gloomy surroundings and your eyes are caught by the weirdly formed and incredibly beautiful flowers frosted upon the window pane. Sing this whole verse pianissimo and legato. And so, with a tone carried upon your breath and with a fading smile, you sink again into your dream.

Sing the verse: "Ich träumte von Lieb' und Liebe" as you did the first one, with animation.

After your first dream you awakened to the grey reality of the outer world. But now your heart awakens to the reality of your inner loneliness. You are so bitterly alone. You think of your dream which can never become reality. But so long as you may still breathe, so long will burn within you a spark of hope, however unfounded it may be. The last verse must be sung with a feeling of the deepest depression, yet a warm surge of hopefulness floods through you at the words: "noch schlägt das Herz mir warm".

A melancholy self-derision flows through "wann grünt ihr Blätter am Fenster?" The last sentence should be sung like a sigh which gradually fades away. You are again half sleeping, half dreaming.

Einsamkeit

You have summoned yourself from your utter exhaustion and have wandered on, but you are wretched and weary. There is within you only a complete emptiness, a quiet which is not peace, a resignation which is only the result of your exhaustion and in no sense recovery.

The first verse should be sung without expression to "und ohne Gruss". With the following crescendo you take hold of yourself, the force of your grief returns to you and even if it is only with the vigour of complaint, nevertheless your heart glows again.

Lotte Lehmann © 1971

Continue...

Go back...