Many musicians fall victim to the thought that great musical interpretation is spontaneously made manifest from the fertile soul of an inspired musician. Inspiration is the child of forgotten experiences. Musicality is the product of unconscious learning. With this I address a point (among many) of central importance to the interpretation of Schubert’s Winterreise.
Performances of this cycle are spellbinding or painfully long. I have performed the cycle several times in my life, after many years of singing through it and researching it. My second performance was revelatory. After a well-sung first performance three months before, I was not satisfied with the fact that my very able pianist and I had decided on tempi established by others. That was never my approach to interpretation. Although that first performance was very well received, I felt something had been missing. During the three months that separated the first performance and the second, I discovered the inner pulse of the cycle. I had studied Beethoven Symphonies with Gustav Meier, who showed clearly how Beethoven’s metronome markings represented metric relationships. This kind of inner pulse is also found in the music of Mozart and indeed many classical composers before and after. I thought it made sense to consider Schubert’s cycles in the same manner.
Later in a conversation with one of my other masters, Dalton Baldwin, I learned that he disagreed with Hermann Prey who once told him that he felt there was a constant pulse that ran through all twenty-four songs of Winterreise. I agree with Prey. As Maestro Baldwin explained, the beat works for the first two songs but not throughout. This is however the problem! Prey meant that there was a steady pulse, not necessarily a steady beat. The former deals with a physical sensory perception related to metric values, while the latter with one exact metric value.
The pulse that Hermann Prey must have referred to, but perhaps could not articulate in theoretical terms, is based on metric values that link one song to the next, such as quarter note = dotted quarter note, or eighth-note = triplet sixteenth note, etc. Indeed there can be multiple choices for these metric relationships. In the case of Winterreise, Schubert provides tempo markings that would inform the metric relationships and provide the performers with modifiers that would allow for some flexibility relative to the exact tempo values. As will be obvious, metronome markings would have been superfluous.
A basic pulse can be made up of different subdivisions that can give the illusion of different speeds. This is the paradoxical principle that guides the steady pulse and the varying tempi in Winterreise. If the principle is followed, the chosen tempo for the first song determines the tempi for all of the songs in the cycle. Chosing the first tempo in this case is easy. The published score is marked Mässig (medium). Schubert’s autograph score has in addition, In gehender Bewegung (in a walking movement). There is latitude as to the meaning of a walking tempo. Dieskau and Alfred Brendel take quarter note = circa 56, while Thomas Quasthoff and Daniel Barenboim takes quarter note = circa 50. From these values we can extrapolate the metronome markings based on the principles outlined above. Based on the opening tempi, these should be more or less the resultant tempi of the other songs:
Song/Tempo Dieskau /Brendel Quasthoff/Barenboim
1. Gute Nacht/Mässig quarter=56 quarter=50
2. Die Wetterfahne/Ziemlich geschwind dotted quarter=56 dotted quarter=50
3.Gefrorne Tränen/Nicht zu langsam half note=56 half-note=50
4. Erstarrung/Ziemlich Schnell Half note=56 half-note=50
5.Der Lindenbaum/Mässig quarter note=56 quarter note=50
6.Wasserflut/Langsam quarter note=56 quarter note=50
7.Auf dem Flusse/Langsam quarter note=56 quarter note=50
8. Rückblick/Nicht geschwind quarter note=56 quarter note=50
9. Irrlicht/Langsam eighth note=56 eighth note=50
10. Rast/Mässig quarter note=56 quarter note=50
11. Frühlingstraum/Etwas bewegt dotted quarter=56 dotted quarter=50
11a.—————–/ Schnell 84 old quarter=new dotted quarter 75
11b.—————–/Langsam 84 Schnell dotted quarter=langsam eighth 75
11c.—————–/Etwas bewegt 168 Langsam 16th=Etwas bewegt eighth 150
11d. —————-/schnell 84 same as 11a 75
11e. —————-/langsam same as 11b
12. Einsamkeit/Langsam 56 11 dotted quarter=new quarter 50*
13. Die Post/Etwas geschwind 56 12 quarter note=13 dotted quarter note 50
14. Der greise Kopf/Etwas langsam 56 13 dotted quarter note=14 quarter note 50
15. Die Krähe/Etwas langsam 56 14 quarter note=15 eighth note 50
16. Letzte Hoffnung/Nicht zu geschwind 56 15 eighth note=16 quarter note 50
17. Im Dorfe/Etwas langsam 56 16 quarter note=17 dotted quarter note 50
18. Der stürmische Morgen /Ziemlich geschwind doch kräftig 84 17 quarter note=18 quarter note 75
19. Täuschung/Etwas geschwind 56 18 eighth note=19 eighth note 50
20. Der Wegweiser/Mässig 56 19 quarter note=20 eighth note 50
21. Das Wirthaus/Sehr langsam 56 20 quarter note=21 quarter note 50
22. Mut/Ziemlich geschwind, kräftig 84 18 quarter note=22 quarter note 75
23. Die Nebensonnen/Nicht zu langsam 42 22 quarter note=23 eighth note 38
24. Der Leiermann/Etwas langsam 56 23 triplet eighth note=24 eighth note*
Any discussion on Winterreise requires profound considerations. I include the Dieskau/Brendel and Quasthoff/Barenboim performances for consideration because the two singers at least are generational icons relative to German Lieder. I will state upfront that I prefer the Dieskau/Brendel performance for the considerations that will be discussed in the next installments. The metric scheme is multi-layered and is a substantial part of Schubert’s formal procedure. This part is an exposition of the metric considerations in the performance of this work. In the second installment I will discuss the metric scheme relative to Schubert’s tempo markings and how the cycle proceeds naturally as a result. In the third installment I will discuss the two performances by Dieskau/Brendel and Quasthoff/Baremboim relative to the metric scheme discussed here.