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Winterreise is among the profoundest works in musical history. our appreciation of this cycle, especially its symbolic and ironic aspects, surely must be enhanced by broader knowledge of the background to both text and music. Throughout these 500 pages Ian Bostridge, who has sung Winterreise about a hundred times around the world, proves to be an erudite and stimulating guide, like an art expert revealing the layers of meaning in an old master. His grasp of non-musical matters extends to the sciences (including meteorology and ornithology), politics, literary fashion, travel (the mail-coach, a modernising influence overshadowed by the advent of the railway) and painting. It is no surprise to find references to Caspar David Friedrich. Bostridge briefly examines several of his paintings with special connection to the theme of loneliness. Elsewhere in the book there are reproductions of pictures by Moritz von Schwind, munch, Lucian Freud and others.

Bostridge’s range of references is wide. If you want to know what causes a leaf to fall from a tree, for instance – abscission is the scientific term – see the postscript on page 365. This relates to the 16th song, ‘Letzte Hoffnung’, in which the wanderer contemplates a tree and imagines the leaf’s fall as a symbol of his own dying hopes. The section on ‘Mut’ prompts a diversion about Conway Hall, near the British museum, where Bostridge sang Winterreise in the 1990s. The claim that this venue is the oldest in the world devoted to the promotion of free thought leads to a discussion of Schubert’s ‘religious constitution’. Other topics raised in passing include the significance of the lime-tree (mythical, allegorical, etc), charcoal-burning (15 pages!), snowflake crystals, Metternich’s restrictive new law on marriage, Schubert’s small changes to Müller’s text and the order of the poems, Parhelia (the ‘mock suns’ of the penultimate song) and the composer’s pitiful health in his final years, relieved by periods of remission. Elsewhere parallels with Samuel Beckett, Thomas Mann and Bob Dylan are drawn.

There are a few music examples, a ten-page bibliography, but no index. Inexpensive and beautifully produced, this book is an essential companion to Winterreise.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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