Saturday, May 19, 2012

The signpost

The death of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau earlier this week sent me looking for recordings and YouTube clips of the great singer of Lieder (for the uninitiated: a German word for "song," typically used in reference to art songs by composers such as Franz Schubert), like probably millions of other lovers of song.  Where I finally landed for sharing purposes was with this clip of Fischer-Dieskau singing "Der Wegweiser," the twentieth selection in the cycle Winterreise ("Winter's journey").

Winterreise, like Schubert's other great cycle Die schöne Mullerin ("the miller's beautiful daughter"), is developed from poems by Wilhelm Müller, a distinctly minor poet except for the fact that Schubert set so much of his poetry and gave it an immortality beyond its merits.  (One translation of the whole cycle is here, for what it's worth; you have to go down the page a ways to find "Der Wegweiser," which he translates as "the guide-post.")

Though much of the first half of the cycle is taken up with love found, lost, and renounced as the poet sets out on his winter's journey, by the time "Der Wegweiser" arrives the lost love is mostly forgotten; the journey has taken on its own relentless, implacable logic.  At this point in the cycle Schubert (who arranged the texts in an order not necessarily Müller's) confronts this drive.  In the translation by Gerald Mackworth-Young that is found in the trusty International Music Company edition of the cycle, the questioning nature of the poet's consideration is maintained through the first two stanzas (the translator of the version linked above abandons the interrogative found in Müller's second stanza).  "Why do I avoid the ways that other travellers tread...? ... .  What foolish longing drives me into deserted wastes?"  The final two stanzas answer without answering, at least not fully, as the poet acknowledges the signposts pointing to nice comfy towns along the way, but follows only the one signpost, "one road I must travel, a road along which none have returned."

How Schubert handles these verses, which could easily sound rather fatuous in a William-Shatner-"singing"-"MacArthur Park" manner, is where music becomes more than a cold bunch of notes.  I could play the program annotator for you, but not until you hear it for yourself: go click that link above, and the blog will be waiting for you when you get done.

Done?  Good.

Though the verses are of the same poetic structure, you'll note that Schubert gives each stanza a distinct and individual sonic physiognomy; from the minor-key first stanza to what at first seems a stereotypical brightening to major for the second, only to be diverted most harshly into a minor even more pensive and questioning than the first.  The third reverses that procedure, from minor to major via another expressive outburst.  The fourth stanza is a masterpiece of much out of little; the melody turns static, before a simple series of ascending gestures at unexpected melodic intervals generates one last moment, not of pensiveness or despair, but of something like resolve or even determination.  A truncated repeat of the final stanza closes the song.  In between these verses Schubert creates at least as much tension as in the stanzas, frequently by means of nothing more complicated than a repeated note, an insistent pattern of simple yet demanding straight eighth notes.

All in all, Schubert has invested the poem with the weight, the substance, the very sense of resignation and anguish and resolution that Müller could only suggest.  Others may have more regard for the poet's contribution, and I'll certainly agree that this is one of his better poems, but of its own substance it simply doesn't have that same power.  Schubert elevates the poem with his music, to a degree hard to explain or imagine.

Skilled musicians can do that.  Schubert did that for a lot of poets, some of whom (like Müller) needed more elevating than others (Goethe, for example, also set frequently by Schubert).  Add the vocal and interpretive prowess of a singer like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and the result approaches transcendence.  Music can do that.

Sadly, music can also do the opposite.  Words that have power and substance and meaning can be rendered trite and inconsequential when shackled to trivial and hackneyed and petty music, or interpreted by a musician with, say, more concern for flash than substance.  I must confess that the church has had a bad historical habit of the latter, a habit which shows no signs of going away anytime soon.  Whether it is the overwrought rendering of the words of the Mass into a decidedly secular spectacle to please a princely patron or the factory-style churning out of popular songs designed more to push the listener's emotional tickle buttons than to challenge or provoke that listener to repent of something, or shut up and listen for God, or (God forbid!) to get up off his or her keister and go live like Christ, sacred words have a significant history of being dumbed down by the wrong music, or by the wrong musicians, or both.  A listener gets used to that, and pretty soon they don't -- nay, can't -- recognize its opposite when they hear it.

Clearly I never mastered "Der Wegweiser."  I got through it on my senior recital (I truly hope there are no copies of that floating around anywhere!), but that's as much as I'd allow.  Yet it sticks in my head to this day as a favorite example of what music can do to words.  I suppose one of my greatest fears about this fool's errand I'm on is how much I'll miss this particular power of music, and how much I'll be subjected to its opposite.

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