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Schubert’s Death Wish

In response to:

The White Plague from the May 26, 1994 issue

To the Editors:

I read M.F. Perutz’s article on “The White Plague” [NYR, May 26] with great interest, but was sorry to find that he repeats the widespread misconception that the ill-starred lover of Schubert’s Die Winterreise dies at the end of this splendid song cycle. In the last song, he begs a distraught organ grinder for his companionship.

May I use this opportunity to correct another popular misconception about Die Winterreise. In the penultimate song, its protagonist sees “three suns” in the sky. This is frequently taken as an indication that he is not in his right mind, but in fact, the phenomenon of “mock suns” or “sun dogs”—pillars of light on either side of the sun—really exists. It is discussed by Kenneth Heuer in his book, Rainbows, Halos and Other Wonders. It may also be worth mentioning that Schubert died of typhus fever, not of tuberculosis.

Hans Eichner
Emeritus Professor
University of Toronto
Rockwood, Ontario, Canada

M.F Perutz replies:

According to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s book “Auf der Spuren der Schubert Lieder” Schubert wrote the Winterreise under terrible physical strain. Schubert’s friend Spaun described his circle’s first encounter with the awesome new creation. > For some time Schubert had been in a downcast mood and seemed exhausted. When I asked him what the matter was, he merely replied: “You will soon hear and understand.” One day he told me: “Come to Schober today, I shall sing you a cycle of haunting songs. I long to find out how they strike you. They have exhausted me more than any other songs.” Then he sang the entire Winterreise to us with a voice full of emotion. The sombre spirit of these songs astonished us, and Schober said that he liked only a single one: “Der Lindenbaum.” Schubert’s only reply was: “I like these songs better than all the others and you will soon come to like them too.” And he was right.

Der Wegweiser typifies the death wish threading through all the songs.

Why do I shun the paths that other travelers tread,
And search for hidden tracks across the snow-clad rocks?
I have done no wrong to shy away from the throng.
What senseless longing drives me to these barren wastes?
Signposts all along the roads point to the nearest towns,
But I search elsewhere for a place to rest.
One signpost never moves from my sight,
It points to the road where no one has ever come back.

The Leiermann ends the tragic cycle.

Behind the village an organ grinder stands,
And cranks its handle with numb hands.
Barefoot on the ice he sways,
His little dish forever empty stays.
No one cares to listen nor to look
While dogs snarl round the old man’s crook.
He lets it all pass as it will,
Turning his lyre which never stays still.
Queer old man, shall I join you as I tire,
To let you play to my songs on your lyre?

Schubert’s haunting music makes you feel the icy wind that blows across the scene. I can see no irony in the song, only a resigned wish to follow the old organ grinder to his grave.

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