Ian Bostridge’s wonderful lecture and performance of extracts from Winterreise encompassed biography, autobiography and history. Ian began by reflecting on whether his book has influenced the way he sings the work and whether this is a valid or problematic pursuit: should the music speak for itself?
Though Ian’s own first interest was in science, he eventually became a historian, interested in the history of philosophy in science. This was a time in which the personal was not allowed into history: so one of the reasons he became a singer was the licence to talk about himself!
The question of the role of the singer in the performance is also a critical one. Some argue that the singer is there to transcend. The intrusion of the biographical into assessments of the composer are even more difficult: some suggest that biography cannot give deeper insights into the art. Yet as Ted Hughes said ‘as an imaginative writer, my only capital is my own life.’
Schubert formed part of a highly sociable group, who introduced his music to his friends on the guitar. The circle kept up to date with new developments – like the bicycle and the kaleidoscope – and a famous painting has been made idealising their friendship. One friend, Schober, however, has been viewed very critically. Schober took Schubert to the brother where he contracted syphilis: and when Schubert lay dying, he asked Schober to bring him a James Fenimore Cooper novel. He never came.
The Winterreise was originally performed for this group of friends and they disliked it! But it was unpromising material, perhaps: a man wanders off into the snow to pick over his feelings of disappointed love. There is a lack of narrative beyond the narrative of the music itself.
Schubert is the first canonical composer to have made a living without a patron. He lived a bohemian lifestyle and made money but was very insecure. Becoming a musician was still disreputable. His work was written with an awareness of his own prognosis. Schubert has been interpreted as a ‘simple’ composer, but in truth his work has a profound complexity, and a recording of Winterreise does not convey what the music is about: it needs to be embodied.