What's the story behind Schubert's Winterreise song cycle?

Schubert’s first great song-cycle, Die schöne Müllerin was composed in 1823, when he was just 26. It tells of a young miller who falls in love, is first accepted and then rejected; he seeks and finds death.


Four years later Schubert, now near to death himself from syphilis, set 12 poems by the same author, Wilhelm Müller, and played them to his friends, describing them as ‘a group of terrifying songs which I like more than anything I have done’, though he broke down and wept after he had played them. The friends were somewhat alarmed.

The next year Schubert added a further 12 songs to the collection, taking the cycle to its grim conclusion: not death this time, but joining a hopeless hurdy-gurdy man and trudging through the snow with him, numbed.

The Winterreise cycle, one of the supreme miracles of song art, is not so much about rejected love as about loneliness and confrontation with the self, stripped of all illusions. Written for tenor, it can nevertheless be sung successfully by a voice in any range.

The Best Recording of Schubert's Winterreise

Roman Trekel (baritone), Ulrich Eisenlohr (piano)
Naxos 8.554471

Winterreise tends to bring out the best in its interpreters, and to a considerable degree your preferences will depend on whose voice you prefer.

Trekel has so beautiful a lightish baritone that it is hard to imagine anyone not finding it attractive and, on this recording from 1998, youthful. He sings with ardour, but without overdoing it, so he has plenty left in reserve for the final five songs, where the cycle, harrowing enough already, moves onto a new level of pain and near-madness.

There’s no light relief in this cycle – the very first song has the wanderer rejected and leaving the town where his beloved lives – but there are many eerie passages of another kind of lightness, as he loses contact with one kind of reality only to find another, much more fearful kind; and Trekel manages perfectly the shifts between the external world of winter and the hot agony within.

Ulrich Eisenlohr’s accompaniment is not intrusive, but he doesn’t miss an important point either – the performers here are equal partners. Naxos’s sound balance does justice to them both, and there are full texts and translations, and helpful notes.

Three more great recordings...

Hans Hotter (baritone), Gerald Moore (piano)
Warner Classics 5669852

With the great 20th-century German bass-baritone Hans Hotter we have a very great artist, with years of experience of singing Winterreise, giving a performance of inexhaustible depth and insight.

And he’s accompanied with immense sensitivity by the veteran Gerald Moore, who manages wonders in not making the low-lying keys sound too dark.

Based on a perfect legato, Hotter’s singing registers every salient point in the poems. There is something impressive, too, about his evidently having an enormous voice – he was the leading Wagnerian baritone of his time – but mostly conserving it on this recording. One feels that, dreadful as this wanderer’s sufferings are, he still has a lot in reserve. This recording can easily be felt to be the last word.

More like this

Peter Schreier (tenor), Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
Decca 478 1714

This revelatory performance was given in Dresden in 1985, complete with intermittently coughing audience. If you can bring it upon yourself to overlook that, you’ll hear someone sounding genuinely youthful, with a great pianist offering one poignant insight after another, but never intruding on the poetic narrative of the singer.

Compared with the two previous accompanists, Sviatoslav Richter is so characterful that you might think he was the leading partner; there’s a lot of onomatopoeic piano writing here – bird sounds, rustles, barks – and all of it is vividly realised by Richter.

But Peter Schreier, with his naturally intense manner, matches or is even goaded by him, in a brilliantly fruitful partnership.

Christa Ludwig (mezzo soprano), Charles Spencer (piano)
Arthaus 102147 (DVD)

Though Winterreise is evidently written for a man (with the text’s references to a bride and suchlike), several women singers have found it irresistible, and the results have often been remarkable: if Brigitte Fassbaender’s recording hadn’t been deleted by EMI, it would have been my unquestioned first choice; and Lotte Lehmann is incomparable, as always.

As it is, the German mezzo Christa Ludwig brings, near the end of her distinguished career, warmth, humanity and highly individual insights to one song after another in this well-filmed and excellent-sounding DVD.

In the 13th song, Die Post, which usually sounds as if it had wandered in from Müllerin, the speed is surprisingly slow, but Ludwig indicates by her tone that this wanderer is already beyond the point of recall – brilliant.


And one to avoid…

Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears made a superb recording of Die schöne Müllerin, but when they went on to record Winterreise, they took their passion for the work too far. With so many romantic hesitations and tempo fluctuations, their personalities get in the way of Schubert’s masterpiece. Pears, too, sounds elderly, where he should sound timeless. I’ve learned a lot about Winterreise from listening to this version, but have never been moved by it, despite it being many people’s favourite.

So, where next? Click here to discover six works to explore after Schubert's Die Winterreise.