It is ten years since the untimely death of W. G. Sebald and earlier this month there was a special event to celebrate his work and launch Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001. There were contributions from Iain Sinclair, A. S. Byatt, Andrew Motion and others who knew him (like poet Will Stone, whose recollections of studying with Sebald were particularly poignant). It was sad to reflect that the last time I had seen translator Anthea Bell on stage it was next to Sebald himself, reading from the recently-published Austerlitz. The crumbling Victorian Wilton's Music Hall was a particularly resonant setting for the readings, and for the performance of songs from Schubert's Winterreise by Ian Bostridge. Hearing the Winterreise in this context prompted thoughts of all the journeys and sadness in Sebald's writings.
There are many clips online of Ian Bostridge performing the Winterreise - the one I've included above is the opening song in the sequence. I thought it would be interesting to provide here short summaries of the cycle's twenty-four songs, to show how many of them start with some aspect of the winter landscape - the rustling sound of linden trees, ice on a frozen river, a tree's last few leaves trembling in the wind. Many of these natural elements are evoked in Schubert's piano score (for example, in 'Der Lindenbaum', 'the piano’s fluttering triplet figuration in E major which opens the song evokes the gentle breezes and whispering leaves of summer: the figure returns later, altered with chromatic harmonies, to depict the cold wind and eerie rustling of the tree in winter, and the young man’s growing sense of delusion'.) Rather than do a plain synopsis I've turned the Winterreise below into a set of tanka-style verses - I know this is a complete travesty (as Mrs Plinius was quick to point out when she saw what I was doing) but I just found it more fun than writing a set of bullet points... I've based this on the English translation at the Lied, Art Song and Choral Text Archive, using Arthur Rishi's titles; you can follow the link to read proper translations, or the original German poems by Wilhelm Müller.
Good NightI leave, a stranger -Remembering the flowersAnd the talk of loveAs I walk this path in snowAnd write “Good Night” on the gate.The WeathervaneThe weathervane blowsWhistling at this fugitive.In that house, the windPlays quietly with people’s hearts.What is my suffering to them?Frozen tearsFrozen teardrops fallLike morning dew turned to iceBut spring from a heartThat’s burning hot enough toMelt all the ice of winter.NumbnessNo trace of her nowWalking on this once green field.Pale turf, dead flowers.And if my dead heart should thaw,Her image would melt away.The linden treeBy a fountain, near the gate:A linden tree. Though it’s darkI try not to seeThe words of love we carved there.Still, I hear the tree rustling.TorrentThe snow drinks my tears,But when the grass starts to growAnd the ice breaks upA brook will carry them throughThe town’s streets and past her house.
On the streamWild stream, with a hardSolid crust of ice on whichI carve her name, andA broken ring. UnderneathThere is a surging torrent.Backward GlanceI’ll not pause untilThe town is out of sight whereOnce the windows shone,The linden trees were bloomingAnd a girl’s eyes were glowing.Will-o'-the-wispA will-o'-the-wispLed me astray. Now I walkDown a stream’s dry course.Every stream will find the sea,Every sorrow finds its grave.RestToo cold to stand stillI’ve walked this desolate road.Sheltering now inA coal burner’s narrow hutI cannot rest, my wounds still burn.A Dream of SpringtimeDreaming of flowersAnd the song of birds in May,I wake in the darkWith ravens shrieking above.When will all these leaves turn green?LonelinessA dark cloud passingThrough clear skies, I make my wayThrough bright, joyful life.When the tempests were ragingI was not so miserable.The postWhat makes my heart leapAt the sound of a posthornComing from the street?Why would I want to look there?There is no letter for me.The grey headMy frost coated hairSoon thaws and leaves me grieving,Sad to think that deathIs still far off. This journeyHas still not turned my hair to grey.The crowA crow is circling.It’s been with me since the townAnd won’t leave untilThe end. Not much further now.Fidelity to the grave.Last hopeA few coloured leavesAre visible on the trees.If that one I chooseIs caught and blown to the groundI too will sink down and weep.In the villageThe hounds are barkingWhilst men sleep and dream of thingsThey do not have. BarkMe away, you waking dogs.I am finished with all dreams.The stormy morningWeary shreds of cloudFlit across a storm-torn sky,Red flames among them.This morning is to my taste -It is nothing but winter.DeceptionBefore me a light…I follow it eagerlyThrough the ice and nightImagining a warm house…But it is all delusion.The signpostI search hidden pathsOver cliff tops and wastelands -One sign before me,My eyes fixed upon the roadFrom which no one returnsThe innI reach a graveyard,Its death wreaths tempting toThe weary traveller.But all the rooms are takenAnd I must go further on.CourageSnow flies in my face.I shake it off. My heart cries,But I sing brightly.I have no ears for lamentsAnd stride on against the wind.The phantom sunsThree suns in the sky –They seem to stare down at me.Gone, the best two suns,And I do not need the third:I’m better left in darkness.
The hurdy-gurdy manBarefoot on the ice,An old hurdy-gurdy man.Nobody listens.Shall I go with him and letHim play along to my songs?