On the interpretation of "Die Winterreise"
The following is an excerpt from Eightheen Song Cycles - Studies in Their Interpretation, written by Lotte Lehmann and first published by Cassell & Company Ltd in 1971. Unfortunately, this book has been out of print for years.
This cycle is certainly one of the most beautiful which has ever been written. Its origin has been so well described by Newman Flower, that I quote him directly:
Müller was brilliant in the tone painting of his words. He had a rare sense of humanity. He set down with the most natural ease the atmosphere of a life. "I can neither play nor sing," he wrote. "But when I compose my poem I sing all the same and play as well. If I could express the tunes that come to me, my songs would please better than they do now. But, patience. There may be found a sympathetically tuned soul, which will discover the tunes in the words, and give them back to me."
Unknowingly he found that soul in Schubert. The last twelve songs in the Winterreise cycle show the gloom gathering about him, the infinite sadness which, with the end of all endeavour approaching, had taken its hold on Schubert at the time he composed them. Müller died in September, 1827; Schubert was to set his last songs and pass on little more than a year later. The last Winterreise songs are an epic in sadness, the blending of two moods of beauty - both in verse and in music - overshadowed by death.
This cycle begins with the last phase of an unhappy experience of love. The lover has come to realize the worthlessness of his beloved and knows at last that the love, which was the greatest experience of his life, has been squandered on one who was incapable of appreciating the unique gift of true love and faith. The girl had playfully accepted her lover's pledge and then without any compunction had broken his heart. He struggles to escape from his devotion to her. He tries to leave the surroundings where he has been so deeply wounded and betrayed. This cycle - through twenty-four songs - leads step by step to utter dissolution.