Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Day 13--Bowing to Madness

“Well, I’m flying blind here, which is what happens when the Internet decides to hit the golf course. So I can’t definitely tell you that Schubert actually cooked up the song cycle, but in a way, it really doesn’t matter. The point is that nobody—to my mind—ever did it better than Schubert.”

“Song cycle?” asked Lady.

“Yup—a collection of ten or twenty songs (or lieder in German) that tells a story. Think of each song being a chapter of a novel or novella. A cool idea, but a little daunting. Because classical musicians work themselves into dithers and blathers about the two major song cycles of Schubert: Winterreise, which is unbearably bleak, and Die schöne Müllerin, which is just bearably bleak. I know, I know—I’m not selling this stuff so great….”

“Why do I fear you’re going to tell me about them?”

“Well, you might consider Ian Bostridge…”

“I always do.”

“Then you’ll know that Bostridge wrote a whole damn book about Winterreise. So that got him appointed as a guest lecturer at his alma mater, either Cambridge or Oxford—sorry, but is it my fault that I’m Netless? Anyway, the point is that in the course of researching the book, he came across another PhD in history. (Besides being arguably the world’s greatest lied tenor, Bostridge is an expert on 16th century witchcraft. The British have these little talents, you know….)”

“Indeed—and can he tat?”

“Probably, as well as macramé. Anyway, the other dude asked Bostridge why he was spending his time on so recherché a topic as Winterreise. And Bostridge said something like, ‘Winterreise is the Sistine Chapel of music.’ So sooner or later, we all have to grapple with it. In my case, of course, I conveniently used my descent into madness to explore Winterreise. In fact, if you have to lose your mind, Winterreise is really the best accompaniment to doing so. It’s like having the munchies when you’re stoned….”

“Dear me, and is the record store open today?”

“Not a problem, since Bostridge has recorded a whole documentary on Winterreise. It was filmed, by the way, in the ruins of an English Victorian madhouse, and guess what? At the end of the whole affair, the place was miraculously restored to life, and completely filled with sadistic staff, jeering spectators, and lunatics, drooling and pulling the straws from their hair. Quite Hogarthian, not that that’s a word. But you know what I mean….”

“So what happens in Winterreise?”

“Utterly nothing, though it takes seventy minutes or so to endure the thing. Right—I see you looking for the exit ramp….”

“Have you considered, Marc, that I’m recently post-op? That my surgeon even now wants me to be on bed rest? And you want me to suffer seventy minutes of descent into madness?”

“You should do it at least once. Because Winterreise is described, usually, as one of the first and certainly one of the finest portrayals of a deep and interior journey. Which is to say that Schubert set sail in stormy seas well ahead of Freud. Who can say no to that?”


“So Winterreise is the saga of a rejected lover, who’s leaving the village at night, slipping away without farewell. And then, every damn thing he sees reminds him of a new and terrible facet of his misery. There’s the frozen stream, the linden tree where he and his beloved met, and then the weathervane. You can guess what that symbolizes….”

“Marc, dear, I am a poet….”

“Right. So at the end, the wanderer encounters the hurdy-gurdy guy. That being a poor blind (I think) beggar who makes his bread cranking out a single, dreary tune. So having nothing better to do, the two join up and set off looking for even more desolation, and today they’re still out there, frostbitten and desolate, having traversed Siberia countless times and having found even it too hideously tropical. Yes, the whole trek has lasted a bit over two centuries, and guess what? It just keeps getting colder and colder!”

“Could this be why classical music….”

“No, spring never comes for those two, but here’s the good news. According to another great singer, the baritone Matthias Goerne, this song cycle is actually the more cheerful of the two! Because the other cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin, has the hero singing a love song to the river. Nor is the hero (in this case a miller) sitting by the side of the river. No, he’s very much in the river, and he ain’t getting out. See? Wandering around in the snowy bleak vastness for all of time is definitely better than suicide, right?”

“Do people actually pay….”

“Well, I flew all the way up to New York, so I could hear Goerne sing his way through Winterreise via Carnegie Hall. Oh, and they had put plastic over the carpeting and chairs, since most of us were slashing our wrists, if not our jugulars. They had attached razor blades to the programs, you see….”


“Well, it was about that bad. The thing is that at the end of the 70-minute ordeal, the whole audience just sat there, twinnly wondering if the whole affair had finally ended, and if it could get any worse. Then there was a storm of applause, of course….”

“Ah yes, and how do you spell relief?”

“Oh, it a merry old thing, is Winterreise. One could blow it off, of course, except that…”

“I think I know what you’re going to tell me….”

“It’s an absolute masterpiece. It starts out with the words, ‘a stranger I came to the village, and a stranger I left.’ Or words to that effect. And then, over twenty songs or so, it’s unrelenting. Each song is a jewel, and each song plunges you deeper and deeper into the soul of this anguished soul. Is it pretty? No. But who hasn’t made that journey? Or perhaps, who isn’t making that journey? Even worse, who isn’t awaiting—and dreading—that journey?”

“Well, some of us….”

“It’s an interesting experience, undergoing Winterreise. Ever wanted to be Edvard Munch’s The Scream for seventy minutes? Boom—Winterreise is your ticket!”

“Deeply rewarding to know….”

“There is, of course, just a little hitch….”

“What! First you want me to go plummeting into madness and misery, and now you’re throwing hitches at me?”

“Yup—unless you’re fluent in German, and lucky enough to have a singer with impeccable diction, you’re really going to have to have a good German / English translation. Otherwise, the thing will seem completely contrived and ridiculous. And even with the translation….”


“Well, it’s an acquired taste. And it also requires a great singer. And oddly, even the greatest singers in the world may not work for you. For years, I thought I couldn’t listen to lieder because…well, because of Dietrich Fischer Dieskau.”

“And he would be?”

“God as trumpeted through a baritone voice for most of the 20th century. According to everyone but me. Really, his voice always sounded too big and blobby to me. And to tell anyone that was as bad as admitting that Mozart didn’t do much for me. But then I heard Goerne, and later Thomas Hampson, and I totally got it. And now, of course, Matthias Goerne is the voice I want to hear as I lie dying….”

“Marc, honey….”

“Yes, write this down, Lady, and put it in a place where you won’t forget! You’re in charge of the audio in case a truck mows me down, right here in front of the café?”

“Are we being just a bit morbid, Marc?”

“Winterreise brings it on.”

“All right, and the miller guy?”

“Die schöne Müllerin is basically the same thing, without the winter and with the twist that the miller has competition from…and I dare you to guess!”

“No, Marc….”

“Yup—the hunter! Sorry, you women always say that you like the nice guy, but guess who wins in the end? Hah! The big stud—that would be the hunter—walks into the song cycle a third of the way in, and it’s all over for Mr. Nice Guy! Not, of course, that he does anybody any favors by just jumping into the river and getting it over with. Nope! Schöne Müllerin may be the first song cycle in the Western Musical Tradition (always wanted to write that), but it’s by no means the most abbreviated or primitive. No, no—Schubert doesn’t pull the heart strings, he gets out the tugboat!”

“And you listen to this stuff?”

“Do you read Leaves of Grass? War and Peace? Well, these song cycles are just the same—long, difficult, and completely worth it. And just the way you won’t read Tolstoy on the bus going back home from work, one day, you really won’t get the song cycles overnight. But it’ll be worth it….”

“Was it for you?”

“No, not really.”


“You don’t come to these works on your own: you’re brought to them. Life puts you in positions where they are inevitable, and where they must be faced, welcomed, cursed, and incorporated. No serious person gets through life unscarred. And no serious listener gets through life without these two song cycles.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Deadly. I tackled Müllerin when I had reached that age when I knew that my dreams—or at least some of them—would never come true. And of course, Winterreise came to me at one of the lowest points in my life.”


“I had given my mother her death. All right—with the help of a lot of other people, but it felt as if I were the one most often wearing the executioner’s hood. And then I had lost my job—with all of its security, its benefits, and its…well, you know about the comfort zone, right? So there I was, floundering. I began to write, and that meant facing who I was, who I should have been, what had happened to me and what I had done to others. I could have—maybe I should have—gone back to my old job. Instead, I willed myself to madness.”

“Are you crazy?”

“Utterly. I had seen my mother chose to stop drinking and eating. She had been brave, and she had met death in her home, in the greening Wisconsin woods, after only eleven days. She hadn’t put herself or us through the horrors of a nursing home. And if she had had that strength, at the end of her life, I could have it in my fifties. So I decided that yes, even if I had to do it in Puerto Rico, I would take the winter’s journey. And of course, I did go mad….”

“Was that when you had the panic attacks?”

“That’s what we called them. Who knows what they were?”


“We live in our Western world, and yes, I took and still take my handful of Western medicine—all the blues and beiges and greens—every morning and every night. Elsewhere, perhaps, the elders would have stripped me, painted my face, ordered me to sip from the enchanted bowl, and…”


“…sent me deep into the jungle, where no man has trod, and no man could trod. Each of us has his mountain, or his own path up the sacred mountain. And each of us will meet the individual beast—unknown to and unseen by any other—who will block the way, stop the heart, consume the flesh, and free us.”

“That was Winterreise?”

“That was Winterreise.”

“Are you free now, Marc?”



Final song--Des Baches Wiegenlied" ("The brook's lullaby")--of Die schöne Müllerin, sung by Matthias Goerne.


Final Song--Der Leierman ("The Hurdy-gurdy man")--of Winterreise, sung by Ian Bostridge.