Our production of Winterreise opens tomorrow, so as you may well guess I'm a bit busy, but I wanted to tell you about this in the half hour before I have to leave for our dress rehearsal.
I took all 24 meditations I had on this great work and compiled them into a book, which I will be selling at the show. It's called "Winter From Above: Meditations on Winterreise with Franz Schubert." You can also get it here if you can't be at the show.
I won't lie, this book is really weird and makes me sound like a loon, but I thought there was some information in these meditations worth passing on, regardless of what you may think about me and whatever neurosis you may perceive me to have. It's unlike any book on Winterreise out there. Think of it as kind of an adult version of The Little Prince which takes you on a surrealistic journey through the spirit world with all its beauty and contradictions. Many of the puppet scenes you will see this weekend come directly from these meditations, and some were not visually translatable, but still worth writing down in my opinion.
This is gonna sound weird, but when I have trouble figuring out what to do with some of the Winterreise songs I meditate and just "ask Schubert" directly. What can it hurt? I just breathe deeply three times, picture a circle of white light open up, and BAM, I'm in heaven chatting up a genius. I'm just goofing off after all, right? Well, it turns out to be extremely helpful. The meditations are supremely vivid, poetic, and it turns out Franz is incredibly wise and full of love and passion. He will usually turn these horrifying songs into a teaching moment to help me with whatever troubles I'm dealing with or have dealt with that are relevant. I want to write a book that includes all of them, but for now I have a puppet show to create. It's amazing what happens when we give ourselves the freedom to be strange, and I'm finding my subconscious to be a far more stunning place than I had ever imagined. Next time you wonder what was going through a great dead artist's head maybe you should just "ask them." Unfortunately I only started trying this technique when I got to song 7, but I may go back and meditate on the first few later...at least for the book.
I had some questions about Auf dem Flusse and Rückblick. Franz took me to a wintery landscape and we stood under a linden tree in full bloom, but in the snow. We were surrounded by snowy mountains and wearing heavy fur lined clothes. There was a frozen river winding through the valley as far as the eye could see and we walked up to it.
I had given some thought earlier to the image of the broken ring in Auf dem Flusse as being a broken path that also provides the opportunity to forge a new path.
“I like your idea of what the ring represents,” Franz said. “The wanderer in Winterreise has his path proscribed for him in his expectations of marriage, and when that path is broken he doesn’t know what his path looks like anymore. He’s afraid, confused, and maybe a little excited, but he wouldn’t admit that to himself yet. Most people see the path of the ring as safety. They know they will be taken care of and they don’t have to think too hard about their life path anymore. They don’t have to forge it as actively. They know what to expect today, tomorrow, ten years from now. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it is appealing, but you and I are a bit different. We need to forge our own path and have the liberty to change it as we feel fit. What path diverges from that broken ring?” I had an image come into my head of winding paths growing like antlers out of the cracked ends and sighed, “Oooooh!”
“How do you see Rückblick, Franz?”
“That song is all about hyperbole. He remembers his leaving the town as being much worse than it was and he remembers arriving there as being much better than it was. If you remember the first song when he does actually leave it’s very calm. Sad, but calm. There are no crows throwing snowballs at him. There’s wind and some snow falls on him, sure, but it’s nowhere near as bad as he is remembering in Rückblick. This song is about extreme contrasts and about how our memories are easily distorted.”
“Can you give me some ideas for the puppets with that?”
“Ha! That’s your job. I’m not getting in the way of your creativity, just guiding your inspiration. You’ll come up with something great.”
I thought it was odd that there would be a graveyard in heaven, but Franz said they have all things there, this was for inspiration because I have had many a worry about what the heck I’m going to do with the song Das Wirtshaus. He simply reminded me of all the time I’ve spent in Austrian graveyards. Truly, I’m a genuine connoisseur of them. He showed me the contrasts between the simple graves and the large gothic noble graves, the grotesque and the touching. They were practically parading before me. I was thinking how I need to find a way to have things pass before the screen like a crankie but without having to put in the crazy amount of time that crankies require, that and they can be blurry when they’re behind a screen. A parade of graves seems like a good idea. This may be the only time you ever hear me say that.
This is really what Winterreise is about. You can say it is about a search for meaning, or an attempt at transmutation (for better or worse), and it is about all these things, but beyond all that it is about living through your pain and experiencing every flavor of it because not to do so would be worse. Sure, our wanderer could have left that house and gone on to another one, found love there; or maybe buried himself in his work, whatever that might be; or even have become an alcoholic or opium addict…but he doesn’t. Many of us have done these kinds of things in times of grief, but the grief always resurfaces, often in awkward ways. Men especially are taught to be stronger than their emotions, that giving into them is weak and to be avoided at all costs.
There is a temptation to view the wanderer in Winterreise as weak because he is always talking about his feelings and his longing for death. It’s easy to see this as wallowing. Honestly, we don’t know how much time has elapsed on his journey between the first song and the last. It’s probably longer than a day, but beyond that is it a week, a month, two months? How long must someone wander through such pain before we call it wallowing? Now that the science of psychology is better understood there is a push for greater acceptance of mental illness and trauma, less judgment on those who won’t just “get over it” whether their trauma be great or light in society’s eyes. We still have a long way to go toward completely rejecting the stigma of “excessive feeling” but we’re on the path, and at least we’ve expanded our understanding of PTSD so it’s not a disorder tied to a specific type of objectively severe trauma but is linked to the way an individual reacts to their own experiences.
Most telling is that the wanderer in Winterreise doesn’t even attempt suicide. He is tempted many times, and often disappointed that he won’t just die of natural causes. It is especially interesting that he doesn’t commit suicide when it was such a common Romantic era trope to kill oneself over unrequited love. What does this tell us? For one thing, this wanderer is anything but weak (the concept of death vs gender and what this says about strength vs weakness is explored by Schubert and his friend, Josef Spaun, in two other songs which are clearly related to one another, but I'll save that for another post). Winterreise's wanderer wants to experience the bitterness of his situation to the last drop, and he is not staying alive for hope that his lot will improve. He doesn’t seem to have such hope, but he does seem to have an almost scientific curiosity about what might come next. It would appear that a part of him is an objective observer to his own pain, like when his tears turn to ice in Gefror’ne Tränen and he realizes he didn’t even know he was weeping. In this song and the next one, Erstarrung, he is terrified about what a lack of pain or what getting over his sweetheart would mean: would it mean he never really loved her and he is therefore incapable of feeling true love? Would it mean that without the pain of rejection there would be no other feelings beneath that? These issues come up in many of the Winterreise songs.
I understand what this is like. There have been very few times in my life when I didn’t have a crush on someone. For those couple of months when I didn’t I felt very strange, almost like a robot (hence the wheels and gears you may see in my interpretation of some of these songs). It was nice in its way, life felt stable, but also passionless. There have also been many times when I’ve been extremely reluctant to even try to get over someone because I was afraid of what that would say about my feelings for them. Once I fall out of love with someone that love never comes back, and the finality of that is scary. I always wonder at all those other people who can meet a former lover or crush later in life and fall in love with them again, it just seems so unreal to me. The fear that falling out of love with someone might mean I never truly loved them to begin with is also worrisome, and of course that also forces me to ask if I’ve ever really been in love or if I am in fact incapable of experiencing love at all.
Last month I sat at the bar where I and my former fiancé would often hang out and realized that I thought I had finished my personal winter’s journey, but I still have so terribly far to go. It’s no longer about trying to get over him, and hasn’t been for a long time, but it’s about finding my path. Where is my path if romantic love is not going to be a part of it? What does that mean for me? I hope you don’t pity me for saying such a thing. It’s just an objective observation. Romantic love is fun, but it doesn’t work for me. In Winterreise we see something similar in the difference between Part One and Part Two. Part One is mostly about processing the pain of the break up. Part Two is mostly about finding a path outside of romance, human companionship even, and wondering what such a life would be like and what it would mean. The wanderer laments much about how he is not like other people, how he can’t share the same dreams, the same paths, and this contributes to his loneliness in the second half. This sheds an interesting light on what his break up actually meant for him.
Many of us think of ourselves as “weirdos,” too weird for anyone to possibly love us. For these weirdos break ups are especially painful because we never understand how anyone could have fallen in love with us to begin with. These weirdos come in many forms. Maybe you are an artist, or have a mental illness, or strange habits, or perhaps you are a nerd, or are obsessed with some niche subject that no one ever wants to talk with you about. Honestly, this is most people! This is why you may see this winter’s journey as your own. Weirdos are constantly striving to understand themselves and why they can’t connect with others the way they wish they could. While love is always a miracle, it is a much bigger miracle for a weirdo who has convinced themselves they are unlovable the way they are, and it is a much bigger loss when that love is taken away. Clearly, for some reason the Winterreise wanderer considers himself to be a weirdo.
I definitely feel like one of these people who is too weird to be loved. I also recognize that much of this weirdness is my own choice. You see, we weirdos are actually extremely romantic people. We may seem cold and aloof regarding potential romantic prospects, but we love very deeply. We just feel like we’re constantly faced with the horrifying reality that in order to make such love work we will have to give up an essential part of ourselves. While the thought of living a life without love is painful, the thought of giving up that part of ourselves for love is even more painful.
Ian Bostridge in his book, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, makes an interesting assumption about Schubert’s supposed love for the soprano Therese Grob. I agree with his assessment that Schubert definitely wanted to marry her but couldn’t because the marriage law at the time required the man to make a certain amount of money before a marriage license would be granted. Schubert clearly lamented his inability to make enough money to marry her, but what Bostridge questions is how deep was Schubert’s love then to begin with? If he loved Therese truly wouldn’t it have been worth it to him to find a job (any job) that would have paid him enough to marry her? This is a choice I myself have faced, not because of any laws, thankfully, but because my fiancé was concerned that I didn’t make enough money as an artist for us to get married after all, and this is part of the reason we broke up. I could have genuinely tried to find a job that would have made more money, but I chose to focus on my art. That doesn’t mean the break up wasn’t painful, or that I never really loved my fiancé, it just means that I needed my art in my life more. I see that this was the kind of horrible choice Schubert faced in his youth
How much did this incident inspire his setting of Winterreise? How much will my similar experience inspire my own interpretation of the piece with shadow puppets (the creation of shadow puppet operas was also, incidentally, my way through the pain of that break up)? Did Schubert experience the same wondering, questioning of priorities in life and love? Personally, I don’t think either Schubert or I regretted the decision to make art the priority over romantic love (Schubert even once referred to music as “the beloved,” which makes me smile), but it does make us “weirdos” in the sense that our priorities are/were just different from what it is we’re “supposed to” want out of life. This could also be what makes the wanderer’s journey through endless winter so complex. Sometimes life is not about choosing what will make us happiest, but about choosing what will hurt the least and give our lives the most meaning. Art is so often about creating meaning, and art is a great substitute for happiness. Art is always a way through the pain, even if we never make it all the way through to springtime.
Well, I completely forgot that I started this blog a year and a half ago! I regret that I never posted anything regarding the creation of The Isle of Merlin last year, but I am excited to announce that I will be mounting a shadow puppet production of Schubert's Die Winterreise! That may sound odd, but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. I feel that shadow puppets lend themselves beautifully to bleakness, and I've been dying to depict a gloomier work through this medium. I have been considering Mozart's Requiem or Pergolesi's Stabat Mater toward this end, and these pieces may well materialize at some point, but I've been twizzed out over Schubert over the past couple months, and have been having a strangely wonderful time delving into this work. Plus it has the advantage of requiring minimal forces, which would make it financially feasible to produce, and I can puppeteer since I don't actually have to sing it!
What exactly appeals to me about this work? I just recently got all my CDs, all five shelves of them, into my small bedroom, when they had been languishing in storage for the better part of three years. I discovered that I have a whopping five recordings of Die Winterreise, and I had never given a serious listen to any of them! Us youngsters, which I define as under the age of 50, have a hard time listening to music and doing nothing else. This is a skill that is really an art. I had to date a man twenty years my senior to realize how important it is to spend time genuinely listening to music while doing absolutely nothing else. These songs are not immediately catchy or even necessarily melodic at all times, generally through-composed, and they often require attention to the poetry behind them to be fully appreciated. I've taken to a habit now in listening to Schubert's songs where I will listen to each one at least three times: once for the vocal melody, once for the poem, and once for the accompaniment. The accompaniment is often the best part, and it's not uncommon for me now to listen just for the accompaniment most of the time. I find this to be especially true in Die Winterreise. For me the piano says so much more than the vocal line, it's what really brings the poems to life.
What secretly appeals to me about Die Winterreise is very personal, and kind of funny in a tragic kind of way. Back when I was in college trying to be a painting major, one of my assignments was to create a white painting. Our teacher would take us to the slide library at the University of Washington once a week to show us slides of masterful paintings on a certain technique she was showing us. I would always get so inspired by these slide shows that apparently I would express myself too much. One week she was showing us how many colors could be depicted in "white" and then we went back to the studio to paint an all white still life. I abandoned myself to highlighting all the colors I could see in "white," so many blues, greens, and especially pinks! Practically neon in their shimmering dance, it was an exuberant delight for me to see this vivid panoply of color in what was supposed to be the absence of color. The teacher passed by and gazed at my work while I was inspired by this dizzying array of chromatic joy and said, "that is...simply...awful!" I was forced to tone it down into the most mediocre piece of crap I had ever seen.
As soon as this class was over I decided to become an art history major instead of a painting major because at least then I would know what had already been done so I wouldn't repeat it. This production of Die Winterreise is my attempt to reclaim the color white for myself! There really is so much color in white! I want to show you all the whole rainbow, plus some. Furthermore, while white light contains all colors, the same can be said for love. The truest, most spiritual form of love is just love, all white, containing all colors. It is a human need to classify and label love into its individual colors: friend, lover, brother, teacher, mother. Spiritual love doesn't delineate, it just is. I feel like this is the ostinato behind Die Winterreise (one of several: the motif of wandering, and that of staccato, frozen dripping being others) that true love is really all there is, a blank canvas for us to paint our expectations upon, whether they be for good or ill.
Admittedly, on the surface, Die Winterreise can seem a little bit too thematic. There is a lot of repeating imagery, or at least it is a variation on a rather limited theme, and the color white can be seen as either very limited, or very freeing, depending on your perspective. It is a trip deep into the core of heartbreak, and I know we've all experienced it...don't pretend you haven't! I know I have, and I emerged alive, if only barely. Transmutation is key. Sometimes I like to wander through the park and have pretend conversations with Schubert, who I sometimes affectionately call "Franzl Wanzl" about random things. I asked him once about Die Winterreise...is it really just a 24 poem pity party? He said, "Oh no, it's so much more than that! It is all about transmutation. Grief can only be transcended through art. Art should ultimately transform into other beauties. Notice how the wanderer is constantly making his grief beautiful. Sometimes he remakes his sorrow anew into drawing, poetry, even unto other gods themselves! The cycle ends with Der Leiermann because the wanderer realizes that his sorrow can be turned into song. This is the ultimate goal." I literally stopped in my tracks upon the trail at Carkeek Park and said aloud, "Yes! Wow! That's it!" Die Winterreise is truly alchemical. Every artist turns their grief into true art. I even once lamented as a teenager that I had had a "happy" childhood, which would make the creation of true art much more difficult. Luckily, I wasn't as happy as I thought I was, and life only went downhill from there, so plenty of art in varying degrees of quality have since sprung forth from my fingers.
This all comes back to how the heck I'm going to approach this work as a shadow puppet opera. I want to see the profound truths, the deep wisdom behind the pain in this work, the unfolding into greater beauties. I like the idea of responding to poetry with more poetry, so to bring that element of hope, and maybe even a greater, more esoteric representation into Die Winterreise, I've decided to respond to each poem with one of my own, an answer in the guise of a spirit guide. So I will present these responses in order. If I was watching over a poor soul like Wilhem Müller or Franz Schubert as a spirit guide, and they were speaking to me in these poetic tropes, what would I say to them?
Gute Nacht (for a translation of the original see here)
To me you have never been a stranger,
nor shall you ever be.
January is as beautiful as May,
though its pearls are invisible
upon the snow.
Your lot has always been to seek,
but what will become of you when you find?
Behind every shadow is a light.
Beyond hoof prints trots the deer.
You are feral but unforgotten,
a master unto himself.
Love flies from candle to candle
and alights even upon the darkest wick.
Your heart is a true compass,
wiser yet than my words.
Though you close this gate behind you
in the dead of whitest night,
one day you’ll say good morning
to your fairest hidden light.
Check back for more poetic responses.
Howdy, puppet opera aficionados! This blog post is really just a link to an older blog post on my other website about the origins of this company. You can read it here. You can also find tons of pictures of my art there and purchase cool gifts that will help support us in creating new productions. Thanks so much for your support! Be sure to like us on Facebook to stay up to date on future shows.