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A Winter's Ramble with Schubert

By Chris Lydgate '90 on February 18, 2011 12:49 PM

582_Schubert_Klimt.jpgI had to chuckle at the brouhaha stirred by New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini recently with his ambitious attempt to rank the Top Ten Classical Composers Ever. (In case you haven't heard, JS Bach was #1.)

Lists of this sort are an old journalistic standby--subjective, outrageous, infuriating, and a marvelous device to spark debate and spur readership.

But it was Tommasini's take on Franz Schubert that really caught my eye:

You have to love the guy, who died at 31, ill, impoverished and neglected except by a circle of friends who were in awe of his genius. For his hundreds of songs alone -- including the haunting cycle "Winterreise," which will never release its tenacious hold on singers and audiences -- Schubert is central to our concert life... Schubert's first few symphonies may be works in progress. But the "Unfinished" and especially the Ninth Symphony are astonishing. The Ninth paves the way for Bruckner and prefigures Mahler.

I was surprised that Tommasini had given such weight to Winterreise. I'm very fond of Schubert's dramatic, moody Unfinished Symphony and his spellbinding piano sonatas, which a friend turned me on to a few months ago. But Winterreise? I knew almost nothing about it, and what I learned did not exactly whet my appetite. A cycle of 24 songs set to poems by Wilhelm Müller, Winterreise (Winter Journey) is bleak stuff. The poet is spurned by his lover; his anguish is unbearable; he wanders through the bitter snow; crows torment him; he longs for death; the river is frozen. You get the idea. The whole thing is, as one friend put it, "a big effin' bummer."

Shortly after Tommasini's column was published, however, I saw that Reed music instructors John Vergin '78 and Denise Van Leuven would perform Winterreise in the Eliot Chapel and I reckoned that the time had come to damn the torpedoes and plunge full steam ahead.

So far, I have only listened to the cycle a couple of times (I like to familiarize myself with music before I go to a concert), but I can already feel Schubert working his magic. Sad? Yes, it's sad. But Tommasini is right--there is a beautiful, haunting dimension to the piece. It ends on a note that is almost monumental. I'm looking forward to hearing the performance.

Performed by baritone John Vergin and pianist Denise Van Leuven
Feb 21, 7:30 p.m., Eliot Hall, Reed College, 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd, Portland OR 97212