07 December 2015

Schubert's Winter Journey -- Anatomy of an Obsession

I have been trying for months to write about this book. It is, without a doubt, the finest book of the year, maybe the decade. This will be rambling, because every page sets off an explosion of thought and emotion and understanding and wonder and question and what more could one ask for?

First off...screw that Dos Equis's guy, Ian Bostridge is the most fascinating man in the world. I have followed his career from his early days at Oxford.  In life, one can be extremely intelligent, extremely talented, or extremely attractive but rarely does on hit a trifecta.  Ian Bostridge began singing as a child.  He went on to write his dissertation at Oxford on the significance of witchcraft in England from 1650 to 1750.  He kept singing. He taught political theory and history. By the time he was thirty, he became a full time singer. He is regarded by many as the finest lieder singer to grace the side of a piano.

In 2011, his writings about music were compiled into the book, A Singer's Notebook.  It has a truly wonderful short essay on Bob Dylan. He chides classical singer to learn a thing or two from Dylan's colored singing style.

Generally, I couldn't care less about lieder. When I got this book I didn't immediately think, "Let's go put on some Schubert."  I bought the book because Bostridge's writing is always interesting, in fact, for me it is more interesting than his singing (again, only because I never thought much about lieder, but I do love his Noel Coward!).

At first glance, this is a book that makes bibliophiles drool. It is printed on heavy paper, beautifully bound, interspersed with photos,and set  in a lovely Fournier font. The book is five hundred pages of Bostridge's obsession with Schubert's song cycle, Winter Journey. He has been performing the songs for thirty years.  He writes,

"My own way to Winter Journey was eased by great teaching and by personal idiosyncrasy."
As a lover of the personal idiosyncratic, I was hooked. Bostridge admits that lieder is a niche calling in the niche of classical music, so why write it?

"In this book I want to use each song as a platform for exploring the origins; setting the piece in its historical context, but also finding new and unexpected connections, both contemporary and long dead -- literary, visual, psychological, scientific, and political.... By gathering such a disparate mass of material I hope to illuminate, to explain, to deepen our common response: to intensify their experience of those who already know the piece, and to reach out to those who have never heard it or heard of it."

While I don't love lieder, I do love art and poetry and music and history.  Bostridge's lyrical writing on what drives an artist is sublime. With all its beauty, this is an obsessive, intense, and often obtuse journey into the mind of an artist's obsession. Be forewarned, but do not be discouraged.

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