Monday, April 20, 2015

Winterreise, Gute Nacht

Note: At a point in my life, I was ready to take on the greatest song cycle of them all, and Winterreise was my companion as I slid into the darkness of madness. Now, as a pure experiment, I want to revisit them, and use the 24 songs in the cycle as the emotional background for another kind of writing: part biography, part fiction. Will it work? One song a day, for the next 24 days! What will emerge from the experiment? Here, at any rate, is what issued forth today….

Gute Nacht

Shades of minor.

The music, I knew, started in d Minor, but on hearing it again—after so many years, after it had accompanied me to the darkest precipice of insanity I’ve yet visited—I realized: We don’t do sounds as well as colors.

There is a painter at work in the room where I am writing, and he could tell you: His paint is a specific brown, ordained or decreed by the government for use in this historic district, but this brown is more than just the color. It is shiny, flat, or even semi-flat; and brown goes from chocolate to tan. As well, colors change according to the time of day, to the amount and quality of light.

But the moment the piano began the first chords of Die Winterreise, I realized: The piece could only begin in d minor. Go up a few tones and put it in G Minor? You might as well play it in C major.

You are put off by these technical observations, perhaps, but no matter. Leave it to Schubert, who died even younger than Mozart, to arrange these things. As he did, nearly two centuries ago, and Schubert knew quite well what he was doing. “I’m going to come sing you some terrifying songs,” he is supposed to have said, or words to that effect, to one of his friends.

Schubert, yes, that great bastard Schubert. You know, perhaps, the Unfinished Symphony, or likely would if I sang it to you, and you may think that the composer saw only the light dappling across spring meadows. But Schubert, like me, knew madness, knew every corner of the madhouse, even long after it was boarded up, and the dust of ruin and disuse covered the delusions and the suicides and the voices of God and every devil. Yes, Schubert prowled the halls, overturning and peering at the shards of dreams, lost hopes, the occasional smile; he heard the thud of the gate as it shut the world behind, as it barred the world entrance.

You go there too, when you hear the music. Those first chords? Whose footsteps are those? The character in the song cycle, that group of 24 songs that are unlistenable, terrible, maddening, and inevitable? Schubert, who know perfectly well that his own winter’s journey was to begin? Or is it you—you for whom life has flung those sardonic chords down through the centuries?

Schubert knew: Any thinking man makes the journey. I could tell you, perhaps, that life makes the journey for you, puts you to plodding down that road, but no. However much it looked like fate, chance, coincidence, or just plain bad luck—you chose it. Because these songs are nothing about a man jilted in love—how could they be? A man jilted in love gets drunk, meets up with his friends in the bar, starts smoking again, and goes out, hoping to get laid.

So this man—you or I or Schubert—speaks the words we all know from the cycle: I came to this place alone, and alone I leave it. Can you say those words? Must you say those words? Because in them is the consent, your payment for the fare of the winter’s journey.

A curious journey, since you pay, yes, but have no certainty of quite where, if anywhere, the journey will end. In your death, perhaps, if the weather turns cold, you have drunk too much at the inn, and rashly decide to venture to the next town.

Yes, death—which can come at any time, as we all know. But do we know it as Schubert knew it? Because when he wrote these songs, in the 1820s, he had not only gotten the diagnosis, he had been hospitalized for it. And his malady was that oldest of plagues, syphilis, and death was the least of his worries. Few people today realize how insidious the disease is: Minor symptoms at first, a rash, a sore throat. Painless, usually, and the rash heals without scarring. And then nothing—nothing, during which your lead your life, raise your family, impregnate your wife or mistress. But all the while you are contagious, and the disease is building slowly in you, studying your weakness, your vulnerabilities. Will it be your heart? Your brain? Your nervous system?

Perhaps you will develop the shuffling walk, perhaps you’ll go mad, you might also go deaf—was all that to be Schubert’s fate? Perhaps so, since in his final years he had crushing headaches, fever, swelling in the joints. He was nauseated and vomited frequently. Yes, they called it typhoid fever, but was anyone fooled? Not the patient himself.

So he was beginning a journey, as he begins the first song, and what does he call that song? Gute nacht—and no translation, I’m sure, is needed. And Schubert starts the song with the words “I came here a stranger, a stranger I depart.”

He was never known, you see—though May, we are told, favored him with bouquets, and the young lady who is everything and nothing, and whose mother even spoke of marriage…well, what happened? Because he is on the road, outside of the house where his love is sleeping, and his only companion is “a shadow of the moon.”

Yes—what happened? Why should he stay, he asks, only to be driven away? Let stray dogs, he says, howl in front of the master’s house—he’ll be on his way.

Unrelenting, these minor chords in the bass line—unrelenting as the syphilis was for Schubert, unrelenting as the would be for the wanderer in the songs. Moonlight, I can tell you, is a lovely condiment, but as the only course on the menu? If you are, as the old song has it, “full moon and empty arms?”

I sit here now, in an empty room, empty save for a painter whose task will end in an hour or two, at most. But my task? Mine will not be so short, nor so easily accomplished. In an hour’s time, the painter will wash his brush, the brown will course into the sink until all color is gone, and all that remains is clear water.

But I must tell you of the man who sings the songs, and the only man I know is I. Yes, I can imagine the young man of 1828, a poor itinerant roaming, lighting into a town, falling in love…oh yes, I can imagine.

It happened to me, as it happens to us all. It’s a very old story, one perhaps not worth telling. “Love loves to wander,” as the poet, Müller wrote. And I was wandering too, in those years when I was struggling to get the music out.

For it was never as easy for me as it was—apparently—for Schubert. He is described as “very prolific,” which means that the music was probably flowing faster than the pen could catch it down. He started one composition as soon as he finished another. Is there a man or woman alive who has heard every composition of Schubert’s. Probably, but most of us know perhaps thirty or forty songs, a few of the symphonies, some of the chamber works.

But for me it was different. They had put a cello in my hands at what I now know was a late age; I was ten or so, and so I had missed those early years when I could have acquired the technique I needed.

Ah, but that’s too easy, isn’t it? If I am to take this winter’s journey, I must…well, as Müller would say, “I must find my own way in this darkness.” For it was darkness, those years in which I struggled.

Unlike the violin, the cello can produce, in the hands of a beginner, acceptable sounds almost from the start. But was “an acceptable sound” what I sought? No, of course not, since I had been hearing wonderful music from a very early age.

It was a time when music came in the form of a record, you remember, and we did not have sound systems or speakers or any of the other accouterments that we now have. We had record players, and ours was a brown, clunky affair with the turntable clothed, as I remember, in a kind of felt, all the better to protect the record. And my mother, an editor, would stack three or four records, to be played one after the other. She would slash her manuscripts with a red pencil; I would listen to Bach and Beethoven.

That was the May of my childhood. I was shy, I was moody, I was guarding a secret so well that I had hidden it from myself. And so normal contact with other kids was never a possibility for me. The tyranny that is childhood—for it is a tyranny—and the death camp of the play ground were hell; I had no idea what to say, what to do, how to hold myself, much less how to run and play. The other kids very quickly sized me up: I didn’t fit, I would never fit. On those occasions when forced to get out of the house, get some fresh air, play with other kids…those moments were an unrelenting viewing of my otherness.

What did exist, if not baseball and tag? What filled my childhood?

Music, always music, then and now.

Today, I tell myself, my childhood might have been different. A teacher, perhaps, would have recognized the social failure that I obviously was and wondered: Was anything there? What was roiling under the surface of that closed, moody child?

I asked my brother, once, what I was like in those years.

“When I first read Steppenwolf, I kept thinking, ‘how does Hermann Hesse know my brother?’”

Right—I asked about that, since my own reading of Steppenwolf was many decades behind me.

“You were hermetically sealed…”

As was the age, since it was the early sixties, and from what did the riotous later sixties spring? To call it a prison of conformity doesn’t quite describe it, since a prison inevitably implies a free, wondrous world outside it. Instead, I think the times were hiding a secret as tightly as I was clutching mine: We were in perfect synch.

Change the metaphor: we were both of us closing our eyes so tightly, so ferociously, that the pressure on our eyeballs was almost unbearable, and the strain of self-blindness had been so constant, so unremitting, that our faces had become caricatures, unseen and un-seeable.

And so we went through our days, we did our appointed tasks. Mine was to go and sit at the tiny tank that was my desk and learn—which I did easily—and to dread the coming of recess, which I would spend with my back pressed against the cyclone fence, while the rest of the children played. I would walk back home for lunch—alone, since in those years kids could and did: The lurid world of child abductions and Amber Alerts had yet to come. Lunch was as predictable as school: The peanut butter sandwich and the carrots, since in a family of words, eyesight was highly prized (my father was a newspaperman). Carrots, filled with vitamin A, would ensure: I would never go blind.

I hated them.

The first attempt was to get the dog to eat them.


Unfortunately, Charity—who looked like she had inadvertently crossed into doghood from foxhood—developed a loathing equal to mine after the first bite.

The next attempt was to throw the carrots out the window, behind the juniper bushes that were in front of the house. Unfortunately, one snowless December morning my mother—spurred only by neighborly convention—got behind the bushes, in order to put up the Christmas lights. You knew she was there only because the bushes—some five feet high—were swaying drunkenly and speaking in my mother’s voice.

Rather muttering, since in the battle between the junipers and Mother—well, the junipers were the clear victors. She wasn’t giving up without a fight, though, nor was she so afraid of that neighborly pressure that she refrained from issuing a stream of profanity.

“Shit! That goddamn branch…. Now where they hell did I put my shears? Ouch, dammit!”

This was interesting, as was the sight of my mother emerging with a handful of brown, desiccated carrots, which looked like droppings from some imagined and horrible beast. One could imagine that they had been passed painfully through the guts of the animal, who was howling in the process.


Ooops, a sign of trouble, since I had been named only Marc Newhouse. When the full gale of a scolding was needed, my mother thrust her maiden name—Myers—into mine.

Carrots. They became my Calvary, though in my case there was no cross to bear nor via cruxis to trudge. There was silence, and the sight of carrots on the plate, and the stern injunction: I was not to get up until the carrots were eaten.

Or rather, gone, since I had discovered that whoever had made the curtains—very likely my mother, since no professional would do such a thing—had neglected to sew up the side of the hem of the curtains. It was a great place to hide…

And so I inserted carrots into the hems of the curtains for several months, until they began to sag badly. Nor was that all, since who could believe that there was enough moisture in a carrot to produce the foul smell that wafted from them, and hung like a miasma over the dining room table? Shouldn’t all that vitamin A have protected them from rot? At any rate, my mother took them down, and went off with them to the dry cleaners.

Ring! The dry cleaners!

“Mrs. Newhouse, would you like us to dry clean the carrots as well as the curtains?”

It was hardly the worst of my childhood, as I told you, and as I tell myself now. Why have I wasted my time, your time, with the tale of carrots? Why, since I am about to embark on the winter’s journey with the singer, who has stood outside his beloved’s doorstep in the key of d minor, and looked one last time at the house where he had once been welcomed?

I listen to that first song and hear, again, that magical moment when Schubert, perfectly, changes into D major. Why that shift, that moment when moonlight changes to sunlight?

Easy for any lover to explain: The wanderer has stopped thinking about his own misery, his own journey, and has begun to think of his beloved. She is sleeping, he sings, and he’ll go softly, quietly, and not awaken her.

But why does he stop? And why does he sing: I write in passing on your gate: good night, so that you might see that I thought of you? And why, when she has been “she” and “the girl,” all throughout the song, why is “she” now “you?”

And then, in the very end of the song, d minor returns, mocking that glimmering of hope. The road is calling him, the journey has begun.

As it did for me.