Japanese mezzo-soprano Hideko Asada has brought a provocative new interpretation of Schubert’s Winterreise to the table.  Although her work has yet to be translated into English, Sparks & Wiry Cries has the inside scoop from the author herself!

Hideko Asada “Schubert ‘Winterreise, or Hermes in Hell’ Interpretation and Performance” (2010) (ISBN 978-4-434-13936-9) 

Out of the three renowned song-cycle masterpieces composed by Franz Peter Schubert (1797–1828), the most popular and famous is Winterreise (D911, op.89), written in 1827 as a setting of 24 poems by Wilhelm Mueller (1798–1827). Müller’s story is commonly interpreted as follows: a heartbroken youth departs from his lover’s house on a cold winter night and wanders out in the icy, snowy countryside. Along the way, he recalls the sweet memories of love, but is unable to escape from the loneliness and despair of unrequited love. In the end, he chances upon an old beggar and is confronted with what he believes to be his new lot in life: to be an outcast.

Mueller’s poems adhere strictly to their literal meanings, and the plot, as described above, is permeated by a dark, wearisome mood.  The poems are familiar and typical of the Romantic style, but they lack rhyme and sometimes are grammatically awkward.  Because of this, until recently, Mueller has not been highly regarded as a poet and it is thought that his poems would have been forgotten had Schubert not used them in his song cycles.  Some critics have even commented that to use the writings of such a third-rate poet, Schubert must have been lacking in his poetic taste.

In recent years however, Mueller’s reputation has been reconsidered.  Especially in Japan, research has given rise to the possible re-interpretation of the simple gloomy plot as an abstract representation of particular thoughts and concepts. 

“Schubert ‘Winterreise, or Hermes in Hell’: Interpretation and Performance” is the first book to explicate how the literal and simple tales in Mueller’s poems might tell a different tale altogether – using paronomasia, or puns.  The hidden tale is from Greek mythology. The hero of the story, Hermes, the god of travel, trade, and theft, embarked on a journey to hell in order to propose to Persephone, who was tricked by the god of the underworld Hades into becoming his queen. Hermes was successful in his quest for marriage; however on his way back with Persephone, he was castrated and died under the eyes of the three major Olympian gods. He was later reborn in Elysion and became a combined form of the old Greek god Priapus in a Herma statue, as in the oldest legend of Hermes. It is a spectacular tale of amazing scale that reaches across the history of Greek mythology itself. 

This story is not purely the interpretation of the author, but is based on objective evidence found in the poems.  Mueller executed the elaborate tale using techniques such as the replacement of certain words with their homonyms, grammatical changes by replacing adjectives with the past participle of their respective verbs, and rearrangement of clauses. Examples of these are included below:

Replacement of common phrases with names of gods and places with similar sounds: “fremd → Hermes” “die Mutter → Demeter” “such’ ich des → Zeus” “als mein Gefaehrte mit → Artemis” “Kraehen warfen Baell’ und Schlossen → Kerberos” “Nun merk’ ich erst, wie mued’ ich bin → Nun Mercrius, wie mued’ ich bin” “die hinter Eis und Nacht und Graus → die Winterreis’ und Tartarus” 

Rearrangement of clauses and grammatical changes: “und seine Zweige rauschten → und seine zwei Gerauschten” “wann in der Tanne Wipfel → weinten Thanatos (und) Hypnos” “Hier und da ist an den Baeumen → Hier wunderlich an der Beute” “Oftmals in Gedanken stehn → Oft mal singe Danken stehn” “unbarmherz’ge Schenke → unbarmherz’ Geschenke” 

Other than the poems’ original, German, other languages including Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and English are also used in the rephrasing, and the Roman names of the Greek gods are used to exploit the multiple meanings of words.

In the second half of the series of poems, the suffering of Jesus Christ was also included, perhaps for the sake of the hermeneutics of the New Testament . In all, it is evident that this work of poetry was a rare work of genius that was able to incorporate a literal story with two other hidden stories, molding the three into a single literary masterpiece.

The essential message of this book lies in Chapter 3. It not only discusses the truth behind the original works of Mueller, but also examines in detail for all 24 individual songs of the song cycle the parts of Mueller’s work that Schubert emphasized in his composition, the visual and audio images portrayed, and the way in which important parts of the song should be performed.

The Prologue, Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 lay the background for easier understanding of details discussed in Chapter 3. They introduce the characteristics of Schubert as a composer, the structure of Winterreiseand the unprecedented unique point of view on the topics discussed.  On the premise of music especially, this book is probably the first to point out the link between Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678~1741) violin concertos Le quattro stagioni (“Four seasons”) and Winterreise.

The end of the book includes additional notes, reference materials, indices for musical works and subjects, and even a dictionary for musical terms. This allows even those without musical background to fully understand the subjects discussed.

The author is a Japanese linguistic scholar and mezzo-soprano who has performed Winterreise twice.  Japan is about ten thousand kilometers away from the homeland of Winterreise, central Europe.  However, since the dawn of time, there has been an endless exchange between the east and west in Eurasia.  Looking at the similarities between the two cultures, for example similarities between Greek mythologies and Buddhist tales, it is perhaps wise to consider Eurasian culture as a whole.  Furthermore, as the country furthest east, Japan has never experienced a revolution or a coup d’état. It has preserved its own cultural heritage while continuously accumulating information from foreign cultures.  Now Japan is one of the rare countries in the world where ancient culture continues to prosper. Many characteristics of Japanese poetry like kakekotoba (pivot word), jiguchi (paronomasia), and honkadori (allusion) can be found in the multiplicity of Mueller’s original poems, such that it would not be surprising if the author were discovered to be Japanese. 

In anticipation of future developments in researches on Winterreise, this book, which is originally written in Japanese, will hopefully be passed through the hands of excellent translators and reach out to researchers, musical professionals and music lovers all over the world.


Hideko ASADA



ROBYN DRIEDGER-KLASSEN "we regret to inform you"

ROBYN DRIEDGER-KLASSEN "we regret to inform you"