Winterreise: Schubert and Müller in Perfect Harmony

Winterreise, as both a song cycle and a poetic cycle, is a dark and foreboding tale of things lost, both love and hope. One cannot mistake the tone of the poems when reading them. They suggest, both directly and indirectly, themes of despair, wandering and madness. However, Schubert’s music turns the text into something more, something totally different. The music transforms the Wanderer into a darker figure, devoid of hope; and yet sometimes one can hear the fact that his world has not always been so bleak, and it may not continue to be so. The baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (who has recorded Winterreise over ten times) makes the assumption that the Wanderer in Winterreise and Die Schone Müllerin are one and the same. If this is so, then our beloved Wanderer survives his Winter Journey to love a beautiful Miller maid. It is her rejection, not the beloved that he speaks of in “Gute Nacht” that drives him to suicide at the end of Die Schone Müllerin. As interesting as that is, it is purely speculation, but it does give us insight into the vast world that both Müller and Schubert have created for our solitary Wanderer.

Gute Nacht
There is immediately a walking pattern evident in the piano voice, it is steady and yet in the upper voice there is a staggering motion, like someone limping after being beaten. Susan Youens remarks that “the Wanderer stumbles because he can no longer see clearly where he is going in so dark and turbulent a world” (Youens 128). It is the wintertime, but the first season we hear of is May. "The month of May blessed me with many a bouquet of flowers." But now "the world is bleak." We are greeted with a stark contrast right away. “The world in which ‘the maiden spoke of love…’ was altogether different from the winter wasteland the wanderer now inhabits” (Youens 128).

“I must find my own way in this darkness, a shadow thrown by the moon." The wanderer is also alone, as he will be until the end. But he yearns for companionship, "I watch for tracks of Deer,” even if the companion is not able to communicate with him. We will see later that the Wanderer tries to communicate with many non-verbal and inanimate objects.
He feels that he must go on, perhaps as part of a broken-hearted paranoia, or he will "be driven out." Here is a paradox "Love delights in wandering" But how does one find love when one is constantly moving? “…Love itself is inconstant, by ‘divine’ plan made to roam from one person to another without the capacity for fidelity” (Youens 125). Perhaps he creates his own heartbreak by moving too much. He blames this on God, “who cruelly designed an imperfect principle of love,” taking no responsibility for his heartbreak (Youens 125). But right away he displays what seems to be magnanimity in not wanting to "spoil" his beloved's rest when he leaves. Could his feeling of betrayal by his love be completely self-manufactured? Does he leave in the night so he doesn't have to hear his love tell him that she is faithful? That she truly does love him after all? Earlier, he sings "The girl spoke of love, her mother even of marriage." So what caused the end of this relationship? What could have come between them? It becomes possible that the Wanderer is afraid of his commitment, and escapes it under the Romantic guise of heartbreak.

In terms of key, we begin in D minor. Most of the pieces in the cycle are in the minor mode, but a few are in a major key or subtly move to the parallel major (Gute Nacht and Der Wegweiser are two very good examples.) Often when the wanderer is recalling dreams or daydreaming himself, Schubert will move to a major key. This happens most dramatically in Der Lindenbaum. "I'll not disturb your dreams." He says. I think it will become clear throughout the piece that dreaming holds a special place in the Wanderer's heart. He will refer to it often and often in a major key.

Die Wetterfahne
Here he speaks of his beloved's unfaithfulness, and that she will become a "rich bride." Perhaps she is going to marry someone else? One wonders if the Wanderer is being melodramatic here and running wild with paranoid dreams of his beloved's faithfulness. “…another instance of the paranoia born of his sense of difference from others” (Youens 132). Let's go back to the words "Her mother talked of Marriage" If she did, and we assume that the mother talked of marriage with the wanderer and it wasn't some absurd comedy of errors, we become skeptical of the Wanderer's understanding of the world around him. He speaks of himself in the third person. "He should have noticed it sooner. “He'd never then have thought to find a faithful woman there." This smacks of the Wanderer justifying his leaving by giving himself a reason to travel on.

We hear the wind spinning the weathervane in many directions before settling down. “The wanderer once again finds images in Nature for his inner emotional state…“(Youens 134). His heart feels pulled in all directions before settling on being broken, in this there is strong resemblance to the wind, but notice the fermatas where he has control over the uncontrollable wind. This could again be the Wanderer's manufacturing of his own pain. He commands the elements to obey his broken heart and creates an environment amenable to this heartbreak. In The Schubert Song Companion, John Reed states that “The song is more outward looking than the poem” (445). One can only agree when faced with the turbulent wind that Schubert has created.

"Inside, the wind is playing with hearts, as on the roof, but not so loud." Here the fermata is at the pinnacle of the analogy, “a dramatic gesture found nowhere else in the cycle,” and Schubert intends to really mark that in the listener's ears (Youens 137). It is amazing how Schubert can bring this to a high point of emotional drama that could be almost laughable if pushed any farther. He comes just short of making the pain real, but on closer inspection doubt over the sincerity of the pain remains.

Gefr'orne Tränen
Every half note in the piano is a tear. The main theme in the piano is made up of a two quarter note and one half note pattern, with the quarter notes being a stumbling painful stagger and the half note being a burning tear falling into the snow. With the tears falling on weak beats, the meter of the piece becomes unstable, like the wanderer's footsteps. The subtle stagger that we hear in Gute Nacht has now become more pronounced.

Here again the wanderer addresses something that cannot answer him back. "O tears, my tears, are you so tepid that you turn to ice like cool morning dew?" It is interesting to note that the half note "tears" in the piano disappear when the wanderer addresses the fact that he is crying. This thins the texture of the piece with "tears." He gives the tears their own life, commenting they spring from his heart, as if they, as well as his heart, have minds of their own. The Wanderer asks the question, but it is left unanswered, both textually and musically. “Left with a still-inexplicable enigma, he closes the book on the subject and leaves it unsolved.” (Youens 143).

“Where are the flowers? Where will I find green grass?” The Wanderer longs for what he does not have and what he will not get, knowing that “even as he searches desperately through the snow, that his actions are pointless” (Youens 146). Here begins a thematic thread that connects this song and the following two. The triplet accompaniment in this piece is repeated in “Der Lindenbaum.” There is also the turning figure in the introduction, what Susan Youens describes as an “apt representation of an ideé fixe” (147). There is a bridge in A-flat major, where the singer “dreams” about what is not around him, yet accepts it. “A tonal emblem of the wanderer’s capitulation to reason, his admission that what he seeks is an impossibility” (Youens 148). A wonderful musical agreement to this is that the Wanderer begins to sing once the harmony has already been established in the piano. “The singer accedes to a truth the piano has already admitted” (Youens 148).

Der Lindenbaum
The triplet pattern from the last song is repeated here. But here in E Major. “The wanderer’s futile search in ‘Erstarrung’…leads him to another green memory” (Youens 153). In the first verse, the wanderer has “dreamed many a dream” by this linden tree, hence the major key. As we come back to the present he states, “again today, I had to travel.” We are now in E minor, but when he imagines the tree calling to him, he is dreaming again and it goes back to E major. “As long as the wanderer remains immersed in his idyllic memories, the torment of his present existence recedes from awareness and the music reflects a rare unanimity of design” (Youens 163).
There is also the triplet followed by the dotted eighth and sixteenth note motive that appears in the piano part. That will become the main theme of the next piece, Wasserfluth.

This is the first piece that we come across that could possibly live outside of the cycle. The strophic nature of the piece makes it a perfect song to sit outside of the cycle and still have maximum dramatic effect. Even so, it shares a “’poetic leitmotiv’…of the polarity of hot and cold” that also appears in Gefror’ne Tränen and Erstarrung. Susan Youens also comments that the previous song, Der Lindenbaum; and the following song, Auf dem Flusse creates “a cycle within a cycle” (5). At this point the music becomes highly repetitive and strophic. At the end of each verse of Wasserflut, Schubert has the singer repeat the last line. Even this seems perfectly placed, as the those last lines aren’t just blindly repeated, they serve a introspective function. “The second statement is clearly a reaction to the first. Having made a statement the wanderer feels compelled to revise it, to alter its emotional temperature and degree of passion” (Youens 174).

Auf Dem Flusse
Many critics have deprecated Wilhelm Müller’s text for this piece. In fact, even today, many scholars do not deem Müller’s poetry as worthy of posterity. However, in his own time, Müller was revered by even the most prolific and profound poets of the day. Henrich Heine spoke of “’Those dear Müller-songs’” and how Müller “’understood more profoundly the sprit of the old song forms’” even comparing his work to that of Goethe, saying “’with the exception of Goethe, there is not lyric poet whom I admire as much as you’” (Youens 19). High praise indeed for Müller. On the other hand, Capell in his Schubert’s Songs said of Auf dem Flusse that “it contains some of Müller’s rather unfortunate conceits… so much below the music….” (Youens 177). He is speaking of the following line:

In deine Decke grab’ ich
Mit einem spitzen Stein
Den Name meiner Liebsten
Und Stund und Tag hinein

On your surface I grave (engrave)
With a sharp stone
The name of my beloved
And the hour and date within

The conceit that Capell speaks of is the use of the word “grab.” In German "Grab", means “grave” while "eingraben" means “to engrave.” This is a bit of a stretch unless you consider that Müller may have been describing the process of making a tombstone for a grave; the grave of the wanderer’s heart (Lewin 126). Whether Lewin is trying to create an excuse for Müller’s seemingly shoddy poetics or truly tapping into his intention is obviously up for debate. The entire cycle is full of interesting and highly sophisticated motifs and symbols, not to mention subtle tone painting and exquisitely emotional moments that hide themselves so deeply that it becomes a puzzle to extricate them from where Müller and Schubert have so enigmatically placed them. With every hearing they become clearer, and one gets the feeling that they are closer to unraveling the mystery that is Winterreise. One must resign themselves, however, to be forever following our beloved Wanderer on his quest for understanding. Perhaps we may go a little mad along with him, but what a way to go.


Barry, B.R.. “Time Levels and tonal structures in Schubert’s Die Winterreise”. The Music Review. Vol. 46, No. 3, 1985: 170.

Everett, Walter Tripp. A Shenkerian view of text-painting in Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise. Thesis, University of Michigan. 1988.

Lewin, David. “Auf dem Flusse: Image and background in a Schubert Song.” Schubert Critical and Analytical Studies, ed. Walther Frisch. Nebraska. 1986.

Reed, John. The Schubert Song Companion. Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press, 1997.

Schubert, Franz. Winterreise: The Autograph Score. Pierpont Morgan Library: Dover, 1989.

Schubert, Franz. Winterreise: A cycle of 24 songs for voice and piano. New York: International Music Co., 1962.

Youens, S. “Poetic rhythm and musical metre in Schubert’s Winterreise”. Music and Letters. Vol. 65, No. 1, 1984: 28.

Youens, Susan. Schubert’s poets and the making of lieder. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, c1996.

Youens, Susan. “Wegweiser in Winterreise”. The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 5, No. 3, 1987: 357.

Youens. Susan. “Retracing a Winter’s Journey: Schubert’s Winterreise”. New York: Cornell University Press, 1991.