Winterreise Article

On the interpretation of "Die Winterreise"

Die Post

The foolish heart will always hope, even when it knows that hope is futile. So when the mail coach arrives, you listen even though you have no reason to do so.

The rhythm of the horses hoofs, the gay call of the posthorn have awakened you from your sad dreams. Against your will, you go to the window, asking yourself - 'What is the matter with my heart, why should it beat so violently?' Accent 'hat' in "was hat es" and sing the repetition with a sudden piano. (Accent 'hat' here also.) The silent bar before the next phrase is your own sad realization that it is foolish of you to expect a letter. Now you sing quickly and with resignation - "Die Post brings keinen Brief für dich". Give a slight crescendo to "was drängst du denn so wunderlich" and play with the consonants in "drängst". There must be a delicate charm in the repetitions of "Mein Herz, mein Herz?" Imagine that your heart is like a bird which is eager to spread its wings. There must be a soaring and a sweeping quality in your voice and it should have a very slight vibration. Then the repetition of "Die Post brings keinen Brief für dich" has more inner strength, and you sing it with a mounting crescendo.

During the interlude you listen to the posthorn and at the same time you listen to your heart. You understand this restless beating, you understand the never-ceasing voice of your memories. Sing "nun ja, die Post kommt aus der Stadt" softly and give a crescendo of painful memory to "wo ich ein liebes Liebchen hatt' ..." There is again a silent bar. Here it is your question to yourself - 'but why am I so foolish? I know there is nothing for me to expect and yet I feel this burning longing. Oh I know, I understand: the coach comes from her town, perhaps they know how she is ... Perhaps they know of what she is thinking ... Oh my heart, my heart - do not fly away like a bird. Be still, my heart.' End the song stormily and with a broad forte. Breathe very shortly and quickly before the last "mein Herz" and sing it as if it were a challenging call.

Der greise Kopf

This song, like Irrlicht is to be sung as a dramatic scene. Begin it with grandeur - in a broad line, and enunciate clearly. There is a sharply accentuated crescendo at "dass mir's vor meiner Jugend graut." (Be very careful to give the exact value to each note.) Make a sforzato at 'graut'.

The next phrase - "wie weit noch bis zur Bahre" - should be like a soft, long-drawn sigh.

Begin the second verse in the same way as the first, broadly and with grandeur, but sing it more softly, as if you were thinking while you are singing - 'can this really be possible? How can this happen to others but not to me?' End the song with intense feeling. Accentuate sharply each syllable and consonant.

Die Krähe

Imagine this situation: for a long time a black crow has been circling about you. It has seemed like a dark and evil shadow about your head. Feel the uncanny atmosphere which surrounds you and pervades your being.

Sing the first verse as if you were inwardly numb, without any feeling. Your steadily flowing voice is filled with bitterness: "Meinst wohl, bald als Beute hier."

Exhausted, resigned, surrendering, you sing "nun es wird nicht weit mehr geh'n" and your bitter despair over the ruining of your life bursts out in the final sentence: "Treue bis zum Grabe."

The greater restraint with which the beginning of this song is sung, the more effective will be the wild outbreak at the end.

Letzte Hoffnung

The staccati which begin in the prelude and continue to the end of this song are leaves falling in the autumn wind.

Do not sing staccato. Sing steadily as if with held breath. There is a light ritenuto at "oftmals in Gedanken steh'n".

The restrained anxiety with which you look up at the leaf, as if your fate would be determined by whether it stayed or blew away, has in it a trace of insanity. So you should sing with a rather unnatural stiffness. Notice the crescendo and decrescendo at "Ach und fällt das Blatt zu Boden". Don't sing this too forcefully. It should be a kind of tone painting - a falling leaf blown about by the wind. This phrase must lead over into the insane whisper of "fällt mit ihm die Hoffnung ab". "Fall' ich selber mit zu Boden" should be sung with great force (although the musical notations are the same as in the previous phrase) as if you are really breaking down. Then change your timbre and sing with deep emotion with a full dark tone: "wein', wein' auf meiner Hoffnung Grab."

These last phrases should have a broad sweeping grandeur and should pour out like the tone of a cello.

Im Dorfe

Your restless wandering has led you to a sleeping town. The dogs bark, chains rattle. Unrest, beginning in the prelude, runs through the whole song up to "ist alles zerflossen". Sing this a little scornfully as if you were comforting yourself by saying: 'These people live in harmony together and share all that is good or bad. It is only I who am lonely and alone ... But everything is transitory, even joy and sorrow - why should I envy them?' And yet your heart beats, warning you secretly. Certainly there is nothing which is not transitory, but these people, whom you do not know, have enjoyed what was denied you. And they will always find again their dreams of happiness - and hope, and hope ... Sing these phrases with an expression of longing, giving your voice a bright and silvery quality. You are playing here with the dreams which other people experience and long for, you are singing of something floating and intangible. Give the words a light floating quality. With the passing of your dreams, reality again returns. You are driven away by the barking of the dogs who, mistrusting the unknown wanderer, surround you.

Sing with great bitterness and with a broad line until the end. Give the impression that you turn away, slowly wandering on, engulfed by the darkness of the night.

Der stürmische Morgen

Dawn, red like fire, has broken through the windswept clouds. The cold wind has aroused you. Once again you feel the will to fight. You would like to fight against your own weakness, your own self destruction.

The short prelude gives the setting for your stormy beginning.

Plunge, so to speak, into this very stoning melody, singing with vigorous accents. Your whole being is filled with animation, your eyes sparkle, you stand erect and defiant. You see your own heart in the image of the world ravaged by storm, it is cold and numb like winter itself. But at this moment it does not make you sad. As if in exultant madness, you feel yourself one with the uproar of nature. These strange, rather touching alternations between deepest depression and surging will to live hold nothing surprising to the psychologist: on the contrary it is a well recognized symptom of mental illness.

The following song Täuschung is the bridge which leads back from this state of inner exhilaration to the sombre urge towards self-destruction.


The friendly, dance-like melody of the accompaniment is the confusing shimmer of the Will o' the Wisp which you are pursuing. Sing with an expression of mystery, as if you are under the spell of a power which you must obey. When you sing: "und seh's ihm an, dass es verlockt den Wandersmann" make it obvious through your facial expression that you are consciously following the Will o' the Wisp. (It will help if you open your eyes wide, then half close them and sing with a light irony, as if you were saying: 'I know you, do not think for a moment that I do not realize that you are deceiving me.')

"Ach! wer wie ich so elend ist" is an outburst of deep pain. Sing this with a darkly-coloured timbre and then go over into a piano of restrained anguish. Emerging from the pianissimo you proceed broadly and heavily with "die hinter Eis und Nacht und Graus". Now you are again in your dream, the doors of a warm house seem to open before you and you find the spirit of your beloved. Sing these phrases softly as though you were dreaming, then suddenly you find reality again and sing with bitterness - "nur Täuschung ist für mich Gewinn."

The melody of the Will o' the Wisp returns in the short postlude. Aware of what you are doing and so without any hope, you again follow it.

Der Wegweiser

You have wandered here and there over the ice-covered countryside, but no others ever travelled along your road. You stand at a crossroads beside a signpost. With a tired glance, you look up at it and considering which road you would choose, you realize that you never choose the broad roads which others take, the roads which lead towards cities.

The prelude conveys your thoughts, introspective. The beginning of this song should be sung with a quiet thoughtful expression. From the repetition "durch verschneite Felsenhöh'n" to the end of the first verse is sharply accentuated. The turbulent soaring of the music suggests the recollection of your conflicts and the dangerous and threatening icy road. But your thoughts only turn there for a moment; immediately they come back to yourself. The great "warum" ('why') faces you and you raise your head singing with a very light, pianissimo, floating tone and in an almost childlike way: "habe ja doch nichts begangen".

Note the sforzati at "törichtes" and "in". The "in", however, should not be singled out, "Wüsteneien" is the important word in this phrase. Bring together the strength of the music and the meaning of the sentence. Give a sforzato to each syllable. But you must do this very subtly. It seems almost dangerous to suggest this, for anything which is dependent upon the subtlest and most delicate feeling is very difficult to explain.

Begin the second verse in the same way as you did the first, lost in thought. At "und ich wandre sonder Massen" you are overcome by restlessness. This should be sung crescendo with driving emotion. After the last "suche Ruh'" open your eyes wide here for you realize that there is only one thing which can bring you rest and peace: Death. Sing with a whispered piano, your eyes fixed rigidly upon some distant point, "Einen Weiser seh' ich stehen unverrückt vor meinem Blick". Then go over into a great crescendo with "eine Strasse muss ich gehen ..." as this realization closes upon you inescapably. In the repetition the crescendo does not again reach a forte climax.

The song ends with a feeling of quiet surrender. Hold the last "zurück" as long as possible, letting it fade away gradually.

Das Wirtshaus

In the prelude, your wandering steps halt before a gate. Looking up you realize that your way has led you to the entrance of a cemetery. With a gesture of finality you open the gate.

Whenever I hear this beautiful music, I see before me a little woodland cemetery in a German village, to which I used to go every year in days long gone by, to visit a cherished grave. Over the gate of this sanctuary, long forgotten by the world about it, was written in simple black letters on old and weatherbeaten wood - "Here dwells the peace which the world does not give."

It is with this feeling that you must now (in your imagination) enter the cemetery.

Sing with great earnestness and a feeling of deep solemnity from the beginning to "in's kühle Wirtshaus ein". Be careful to avoid any inexactness here, do not make any portamenti, do not 'scoop'. The more purely, the more clearly and the less sentimentally you sing here, the nearer will you approach the ideal. This music is too uplifted, too heavenly beautiful, to be reproduced without the utmost reverence.

Bring out as much as is possible without exaggeration, the ü in "müde Wanderer" and "kühle Wirtshaus". Feel the painting of tone in these words.

The next sentence, "Sind denn in diesem Hause", should be sung with a veiled pianissimo. "Bin matt zum Niedersinken" is like a sigh. Emphasize the word "matt", but do it without any force. You can, if you do it with the greatest care, make an almost unnoticeable portamento at "zum Niedersinken", but I am almost afraid to mention this, for it is dangerous advice. It can only be done with the very acme of subtlety. "Bin tötlich schwer verletzt" is hardly more than breathed, it must be very restrained, sung, so to speak, with a fading heartbeat.

In the short interlude your eyes become alive, a shadow crosses your face. Colour your voice darkly. You tremble with pain: "du unbarmherz'ge Schenke, doch weisest du mich ab?" and the next sentence "Nun weiter denn ..." is to be sung with the deepest resignation. Your voice becomes empty, light, colourless. The next words "nur weiter" should have a delicate crescendo but one lacking in any force, as if with a sigh of resignation. The last bar is ritardando. Sing each syllable distinctly giving the impression of tired feet which wander on.

In the postlude you turn away and again wander on, purposeless, without any goal.

Der Mut

Once again you pull yourself together, once again you find the power of defiance. Life has closed for you the door to happiness. Death has refused you. What can be left for you? Yet once again your heart quickens, rebellious, ready to fight.

Your bearing should express the change which has come over you: you stand very erect, as if you were facing the fate which has so senselessly destroyed you.

Even in the first verse a great differentiation must be made: you cannot sing "wenn mein Herz im Busen spricht" with the same force of tone and certainly not with the same expression with which you sing "sing' ich hell und munter". Your heart speaks to you in sombre tones, secretly, whispering. So you must sing piano, with a sorrowful expression. Then sing "sing ich hell und munter" forte.

The same applies to the next phrases: "Höre nicht, was es mir sagt" is secret, with suppressed fear, piano. "Habe keine Ohren" is loud, accentuated, shrill. The following two phrases are again to be done in the same way.

The last verse is strongly rhythmical, loud, bold, challenging. It is as if one who is afraid of himself, whistles to drown his fear.

Die Nebensonnen

But this moment of surging energy was only a deceptive one. Now you have sunk into further depths of melancholy. You can no longer struggle with either the world or yourself. Your thoughts seem clouded and confused. Soon you will be lost in darkness and consumed by a horror which is worse than death.

I have often been asked what is meant by the three suns. This is a matter of opinion of which there are several. One might say: it is a foggy evening and the setting sun, penetrating through the fog in a strange mirages gives the illusion of three suns.

A great musician takes the convincing view that by these three suns is meant: faith, hope and love. Faith in the beloved, in any kindly fate, has passed. Hope is dead. Only love remains and will not die. If only it would also die! Only in a complete inner emptiness can lie release. Much as I value this moving interpretation, I cannot entirely accept it for my own. Why should we search for a logical explanation? The man who wanders so tragically through this cycle, until spiritual dissolution engulfs him, thinks and feels with the soul of one who is ill. It does not seem strange to me that he sees before him the illusion of three suns. If you create the inner vision of three suns in your feeling, they are there for you - and, with you, for your audience.

The restrained prelude is your glance as it falls upon something strange and wonderful: from out of your sombre thoughts you see the shimmering suns. Sing this simple flowing melody in a mysterious, floating, light piano. Be rigid, as if you were staring at something, be restrained as if under the enchantment of some spell. You must prepare in this song for the last song, which follows it. Disintegration through self destruction is your melancholy fate. Prepare for this. This is the only way in which I can explain it: sing 'Die Nebensonnen' uncannily. Your audience must experience the same cold shiver which you feel. The forte which develops with a crescendo is very difficult to sing ("Und sie auch standen da so stier").

The three suns are there before you like a wall, tremendous, shining over you with cold splendour. Retain the same rigid, uncanny, motionless bearing (in voice, carriage, facial expression) up to "doch in's Angesicht". Now take the crescendo to the next phrase with your whole being: a wave of pain floods through you. You think of the two eyes of your beloved which once lighted your way. "Ach neulich hatt' ich auch wohl drei, nun sind hinab die besten zwei ..."

Beside the sun in the heavens shone the eyes of your beloved, which were like suns to you, but you have lost them, in darkness they have been extinguished for you. Sing this phrase veiled in tears, repressed, softly. Your eyes, which have been closed, open again in the short interlude and numbness comes back into your face.

End the song with the same lifeless expression of uncanny rigidity with which you began it.

Der Leiermann

In this song the greatest lack of expression is the acme of expression. Stand very stiffly, with an expression of absolute emptiness, your eyes half closed. Words fall from your lips in uniformly light tones, without any accents.

You have been repudiated by both life and death. Senselessly you sway along the road without either goal or purpose. Madness which has followed you along your way has spun its inescapable web about you, impelling you to become the companion of the poor old man, who, deluded and deranged, grinds away on his organ, amidst ice and snow, without any reason, for no one.

Bursting out in suppressed derision at yourself, you call to him: 'Will you not turn your organ to my songs?'

With a slight crescendo, you stagger towards the old man, the poor old fool, at whom dogs bark and whom human beings avoid. Darkness has fallen round about you. Darkness engulfs you. You are lost in nothingness, submerged in emptiness...

Lotte Lehmann © 1971

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