mütter’s winterreise

Notes by Otto Brusatti (Musicologist, Musiksammlung der Stadt Wien, ORF)

Before their first presentation, Franz Schubert had called all these numbers "schauerliche Lieder" (atrocious songs). His cycle, encompassing 24 pieces for singing voice (high tenor?) and piano were published (1828) in two parts during his lifetime as Opus 89, and listed in the later Deutsch-Verzeichnis as Number 911.

To a great extent, Bertl Mütter takes Schubert at his word. Firstly, he retains the flow and the basic structures. Secondly, he treats the songs, thoroughly modern in their time, in a manner modern for today. And thirdly, he doesn't shy away from making his own flesh creep, nor from letting others shudder with him. To do all that he needs only a little piece of brass, even less electronic acoustics, but in any case voice, larynx, breath, style, audacity and courage.

Schubert wrote it all down in 1827. In two slices, however. Back then the apparently word-devouring reader Schubert received new texts from Wilhelm Müller, whom he had once before described as a brilliant lyricist. This time, however, there were no distressful puberty laments of a young workman which expanded to become the "Schöne Müllerin" (Pretty Miller maid). No, this time it was all contained in two slim pamphlets, a softcover book "Urania," and a title Gedichte aus hinterlassenen Papieren eines reisenden Waldhornisten (Poems from papers left behind by a traveling horn player). Schubert started setting it to music immediately. Of course later musicology, both amazed and frustrated, is still at a loss to know why Schubert initially composed music to only the first twelve poems. He may have very well thought that as the pattern was already set, the story remained more or less open. He received the second batch of text months later, and he resumed writing as if nothing untoward had occurred.

The modern Herr Mütter doesn't waste time with such trifles regarding the genesis of the work. Grand, unencumbered and somehow powerful too, he is as understanding of and familiar with physical manipulation of his instrumentarium as he is with the assembling and inhaling of his Schubert. A naÏve ingenuous Polyphem stands there on the stage, bustling, blatant, flashing, scurrying, in constant action. Whether the people before and below him become restless, or whether they look up at him inadmissably fascinated, seems to trouble him hardly at all. Mütter visits his Schubert and works with him.

The 24 Lieder (12 + 12, no matter what Schubert provides as a workshop designation) narrate a story. An obviously quite young man, a small-souled poet, a softy inclined to dementia, marches on a rather speedy beeline out of a small town, also leaving behind a girl friend/beloved/naÏf (?); he feels—as does every forsaken and misunderstood person before and after him—that he has been ridiculed, hastened on his way; he howls; he digs his fingers into the snow, works himself up in memories past, spilling over with jealousy. In the fifth song, already exhausted, he comes to a linden tree (afterward Schubert must suffer time and again the stigma of being a wrongly understood folk musician); he calms himself, and apparently finds a bit of rest. Apparently. For the psycho-path and the futile self-analysis now really come into their own!

For the present Mütter limits himself to the pattern. At first. He sings, swaggers, blows, produces polyphony with his instrument. Schubert in a clouded mirror, Schubert indistinct, sometimes brought forth to a clearly visible point. Sometimes—excessive and sparse simultaneously—with electroacoustic underpinning. Showing up rather more incidentally than from any original model.

But meanwhile the Winterreisen interpretation develops, with trombone and euphonium and computer and music stand—and above all, many many notes from the one in the limelight and somehow also from a child at play. But more about that later.

Now, in the original Schubert it moves slowly for the first time toward preservation. Tears, tears, tears. Everything as if taken from the freezing compartment. And all of it instantly mirrored in harmonic repetition. A stream accompanies the winter traveller, ice above him, heat below. The first hallucinations present themselves. One imagines that he sees a will-o'-the-wisp, becomes exhausted,
yet continues to reminisce, dreams of flowers, awakes, really no longer knows where and when—the human being mutates to one who is ever longing, somehow expelled from his little Paradise, becomes a problem psychological case. Then, at the end of the first dozen songs, eulogies to loneliness, has the winter traveller come to terms with himself, reconciled himself to his destiny, drawn a line under his life up till now?

In the meantime Mütter has also left his own impressionism under the linden tree, and by the use of echo effects makes one individually difficult cortege after another, becomes exuberant, wants to be an opera singer, moans, now and then leaves all his instruments behind. His fen fire resembles a foghorn. His repose is uneasy, his springtime dream a whimpering infant, his loneliness disabling, a dullard.

Then. The second section.

For Schubert, properly speaking, "Post" promises relationships once again, harnesses, roped-together climbing teams. Then resignation. One sees himself as one grown old and anticipates the tranquillity that comes with aging. Then one entertains himself with the strange world of animals. As a winter traveller, one searches for natural metaphors in order, somehow, to busy himself intellectually; of course—Nature!—she is hostile (as always) and bites. Another storm, a chilling down as if after a sauna—a temporary self-induced recovery?

Mütter also plays postman, cooing from that ancient head and accompanying a crow, his natural experience appears as if through a veil; tomorrow's storms occur mainly within his cranium and emerge from a clamourous blabbering mouth.

For Schubert it's the final round. Fen fires once again. Delusions—a signpost and the wrong road—taverns as compliant graveyards—wholly absurd convulsions, and nerving oneself to be brave—then the mock suns, parhelions, blind spots on a curtailed heaven—the legendary organ-grinder, the anti-guardian angel.

Mütter becomes ever more silent; he mourns, as it were, for and with himself and his instruments; then that bit of grieving bores him and he's back in order again, singing lustily to break the monotony; the mock suns are once more songs of aging and a puppet show for astronomers and astrologers; the organ-grinder lingers long, an unpleasant offensive sound (but in any case, Schubert wanted it thus), one requires lots of air for dealing simultaneously with song and instrument, one needs to exhaust himself.

Then, after the introduction of the organ-grinder, he accompanies the winter traveller on his flight to suicide, to his own extermination, to the other world—whatever the case may be. Silence, abundant silence.

It is reported that back then when Schubert presented his Winterreise for the first time to a circle of friends, they were rather at a loss, even dumbfounded, at all events not particularly happy with it.

After his presentation/performance (significantly in the Schubert Salon of the Vienna Concert House), Mütter received a great deal of applause, after an inititial silence, for deep weariness followed after the tensioned instrumentality of his offering. In addition, some were rather at a loss, even dumbfounded, at all events not particularly happy with it.

And that should be considered as a compliment.


Otto Brusatti, June 2001
Translation: David Koblick

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