At a Glance
One of Franz Schubert's greatest masterpieces is his mammoth song cycle (a succession of 24 songs) entitled Winterreise, or Winter Journey, composed in 1827 on poems by a Prussian poet named Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827). In this bleakly beautiful confrontation with ultimate things, a wayfarer who has been rejected in love goes on a quest through the wintry landscape of his soul in search of reasons for his difference from other human beings.
Along the way, he ponders the nature of his journey—a symbol of life itself from Homer on—and heroically but unsuccessfully attempts to put aside his grief in order to continue living. He is tempted by inner voices proffering death in the fifth song ("The Linden Tree") but never attempts suicide, although he longs for death with increasing fervor as the journey continues. Throughout, he probes his inner self for answers to his questions about existence, and the questions finally lead to a grim epiphany in the 20th song ("The Signpost"), in which he recognizes a stark and awful fate. At the end, he sees himself in the hallucinatory image of a hurdy-gurdy player, grinding away at his instrument despite the fact that no one can hear him.
In early 19th-century Europe, songs were generally considered to be trifles intended for amateur music making at home. Schubert, his ambitions monumental from the start, would not have it that way and composed two song cycles on poetry by Müller (Die schöne Müllerin, or The Beautiful Miller Maid of 1823 is the other), whose depth and breadth are audible to all with ears, eyes, and hearts. Never again would anyone be able to say that "song" was not the equal of symphonies, operas, or string quartets in profundity.