Winterreise is based on a group of poems by Wilhelm Mueller, published in 1824. This publication included the poetic cycles Die Schoene Muellerin and Die Winterreise. While both Die Schone Muellerin and Die Winterreise are from the same book of poems by Mueller, the tone and story of both sets are quite different. Die Schone Muellerin is most defnitely narrative: A story of a young miller who meets a lovely girl and intends to marry her until jealousy and betrayal lead him to committ suicide. Die Winterreise is a story of one man’s journey away from his beloved and into the wilderness. Die Winterreise is very much a series of mood pieces and states of mind, whereas Die Shone Muellerin has a narrative and character and story pieces. They connect in many ways, in fact the famous baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau has postulated that the Wanderer from Winterreise goes on to become the Miller in Die Schone Muellerin, but if that is the case, then throughout Winterreise, the Wanderer goes through an emotional transformation, perhaps even a psychotic episiode in his journey, before settling down to become a miller. Stories vary on how Schubert came by these poems but one story holds some credence. Schubert found the book of poetry in the library of his friend, and then plunged himself into a secluded bout of writing, only to mention in a letter to a friend "I have been writing a group of songs, they are the best that I have written." It is obvious that Schubert felt quite strongly about the work and planned a private performance with himself singing and playing shortly after it was completed. Not much is known about this first performance except that one listener was noted as saying that it wasn't worth much and that "the only piece I enjoyed was Der Lindenbaum" , one of the few pieces in a major key, although the bridge is in minor.

Most of the pieces are strophic, as are the poems. Schubert took great care in stringing the individual songs together in both dramatic and musical frameworks, a perfect example being the triplet motive that connects Der Lindenbaum, Waserfluth, and Auf Dem Flusse. Dramatic motives are found in other sections, beginning in Die Post, the Wanderer focuses on pain in his heart (Mein Herz, die Post bringt keinen brief fur dich/The post brings no letter for you, my heart), through his head in Der Greise Kopf (The Grey Head) and finally above his head in Die Kraehe (The Crow).

Der Greise Kopf is a very stark piece in that the accompaniment is basically chordal, with the vocal line foreshadowed in the right hand of the piano and then fully realized by the voice.

The first line of the piece "The frost has laid a white shine all through my hair" is obviously in C minor, the key of the piece. The Wanderer's depression has made him unaware of his physical appearance, the snow has covered his hair, and perhaps had he not been more aware, may have covered him up entirely. Upon noticing, however, the wanderer rejoices at the fact, thinking he has become old "It made me think I was already grey-headed, and it made me happy." This line is in G Major, the closest major key, but this happiness is short lived when he realizes that it is not his hair, but the snow that has made him prematurely grey. In mm. 17 & 18, the arpeggiated chords realize musically the shake of the head that removes the snow ("Doch Bald is er hinweggetaut/but soon it thawed), and the realization hits him suddenly. The next two chords in mm 19 and 20 are not arpeggiated, but attacked forte to underscore the shock of his folly, and his pain again mounts steadily and chromatically in mm.21 and 22. A bleak realization hits the Wanderer at m. 24. No real chords are heard, but the steady octaves rising diatonically signifying his long journey before he can rest ("how far still to the grave"), and then at m. 28, the music hits its lowest point yet.

Then the piece begins again, almost exactly as before, but the Wanderer is philosophical ("From red evening to morning's light many a head becomes grey") This section is governed by E natural rather than E-flat, which is naturally occurring in C Minor. This denotes a problem. While moving into the parallel major is not uncommon, it fits the change in the Wanderer’s state of mind. In the next stanza he laments again, this time in a quasi-major moment, how funny it is that "mine has not turned grey, throughout this long journey." The Wanderer implies that he has been through a lifetime of pain and torment since his journey began. this unrealistic view of the aging process is underlined by the E-natural governance in this section. Both the music and the Wanderer are “not quite right.”

The piece is short and repetitive, but gives a great deal of insight into the mind of the Wanderer. It is too easy to accept the Wanderer’s pain as completely valid and worthy of such a strong reaction. Here it is easy to find the melodrama, not that one should ridicule the protagonist, but to understand that the struggle is internal. The Wanderer has indeed had a traumatic emotional experience, but the pain is made far keener by the fact that he must be suffering from a psychological disturbance that goes beyond his circumstances. This may seem revisionist, but while melodramatic and histrionic emotions seems unnecessary and repugnant today, these were Romantic ideals of Schubert’s time, and since Schubert was ill at the time and probably well aware of his own mortality, it is not hard to see how he felt a strong connection to these poems of Mueller.

While the entire “Winter’s Journey” takes two whole nights, with definite break in between certain pieces like Im Dorfe and Der Stuermische Morgen, the immediacy of the set of pieces that comprises Der greise Kopf is clear. If the Wanderer is bi-polar, let’s say, one can obviously see a depressive episode taking place at No. 12 (Einsamkeit/Loneliness) and proceeding through No. 16 (Letze hoffnung/last hope). Der Greise Kopf takes place in the middle of his depressive episode. Einsamkeit is the beginning of his lament of loneliness, which is given a false reprieve in Die Post, where he naively believes that his lover has called for him in a letter. The resulting disappointment drags him down into a deeper depression in Der Greise Kopf where he wishes to be old and closer to death. Nature gives him more reason to believe in his impending death when he spots the scavenger crow in Die Kraehe, which leads him to his Letze Hoffnung, or last hope, where he puts the faith of his life in the last leaf falling off a tree. Possibly the same kind of tree that tried to betray him in Der Lindenbaum.

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