During this pandemic year, distanced from the world, I’ve taken solace in Schubert’s 1827 song cycle “Winterreise,” which plumbs a man’s anguish as he travels through a wintry night away from the woman who has rejected him. The desolation of solitude, darkness and ice, and the lilting or storming interplay of piano and voice, have been a surpassingly beautiful refuge.

But while such refuge may seem a comfort, it’s not one to get comfortable in. Just as the notion of a “global pandemic” dissolves in face of differential hardships falling on different people and places, I’ve felt that the humanistic experience of “Winterreise” might—and maybe should—dissolve in grappling with how its specific inflections fall on its time and ours.  

Of course, any artwork is bound to reflect and gather cultural meanings. As singer Ian Bostridge writes in Schubert’s Winter Journey, a detail as small as the charcoal burner’s hut hints at protest against the repressive politics of Schubert’s time. In later times too, Olivia Giovetti notes that “Winterreise” has been emblematic of other cultural winters.

Beyond larger-scale politics, an artwork moves among finer-grained cultural meanings. These matter greatly for “Winterreise,” since this song cycle genre that Schubert launched is suffused with emotion focused on the interior, intimate sphere. And therein, I’ve found, the problem lies.

In theme and form, “Winterreise” is about a man’s obsession with an absent woman. With every step he travels, his thoughts return to her; not until the last of the 24 songs does another human catch his attention. He stamps the story of her betrayal on the world around him: In leaving, he writes a sinister “good night” on her gate; he revisits a tree carved with symbols of love for her; on a frozen river he etches her name. A weathervane becomes an image of her inconstancy, and later he deepens the recrimination by crediting a watchful crow with the fidelity she lacks.

"In theme and form, 'Winterreise' is about a man’s obsession with an absent woman." What happens when the haunting imagery of Schubert's song cycle darkens into pathology? @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet

Sustained patterns of metaphor in the work are disquieting. Across songs there is linked imagery of tracking and hunting, predation and prey: The wanderer looks for deer tracks in the snow, remembers the footprints that his beloved had previously trod in grass, then inverts the imagery in thinking himself the crow’s eventual prey. These metaphors have a long literary history: Poems by Petrarch, Wyatt and Spenser all describe male conquest in terms of tracking, taming, and owning women personified as deer; and indeed Schubert also set such images to music in his first major song cycle, “Die schöne Müllerin.”

Another theme in “Winterreise” casts feminine eyes as stars giving life and energy to the man they gaze on lovingly, and threatening extinction to him when the gaze is withdrawn. In “Rückblick,” the wanderer remembers arriving in the beloved’s town and finding “two girlish eyes glowing” at him; near the end of the cycle, in “Die Nebensonnen,” he says that the extinction of those two precious suns now leaves him ready for death. Again, Schubert’s use of this imagery continues a cultural legacy: In Handel’s 1709 opera “Agrippina,” the emperor Claudio tries to seduce Poppea by singing, “I return to look upon you once more, dear eyes, stars of love.” He then attempts to rape her.

Not only are such themes and images specifically gendered, but they are also woven into larger cultural patterns. As Bostridge observes, a metaphor’s associations can seem troubling with good reason: “Our protagonist is that oh-so-modern man, a stalker; but isn’t the notion of stalking built into our very concept of romantic love, our founding myth, our sentimental solace, one which might all too easily keel over into pathology and abuse?”

That question is explored by philosopher Kate Manne in her 2017 book, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, and its 2020 sequel, Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women. Misogyny, Manne contends, is a structured system that polices and enforces expectations on women and girls in order to uphold patriarchal norms. As she shows: “These norms and expectations take the form of what men are deemed to be entitled to and what women are held to be obligated to give to them—by way of sex, obviously, but, still more insidiously, things like love and care and attention and affection.” The worst kinds of misogynistic violence, on her account, are not exceptions but extremities in the spectrum of harm inflicted by male entitlement. Murders of women by their current, past, or would-be partners “have much the same shape—the innocent-seeming beginnings, the indications of jealousy, and the brutal acts of retribution for some supposed act of betrayal.”

One variety of male entitlement Manne notes is the expectation that a woman will bolster a man’s psychic well-being “by holding a flattering image of him in her eyes and beaming it back to him.” If that gaze is withheld or broken off when a woman refuses the relationship, a man may lash out in violence. The “Winterreise” wanderer is often assumed to have killed himself at the end of the cycle, after his two precious “suns” disappear—but, in art and reality, often the woman is killed instead.

Seen through this lens, the faintly disconcerting imagery of “Winterreise” darkens into pathology. In Schubert’s time and our own, metaphors used by the wanderer in the aftermath of rejection are linked to male expectations of women’s attention, and to destroying women who fail to meet that expectation.

Manne’s analysis of misogyny also highlights its cultural sway in the form of “himpathy”: the tendency “to be overly focused on, and… give sympathetic attention to, men and boys in ways that are systematically distorting.” Frankly, each performance of “Winterreise” is a 70-minute session of himpathy. It takes listeners on a long journey through a man’s florid grief, inviting them to find universally-human truth and beauty in it without considering the woman he sings about. If himpathy can and should be actively resisted on ethical grounds, as Manne urges, it’s hard to escape the idea that the art we consume, and how we encounter it, should change. Can any mode of performing “Winterreise” do something other than carry on its misogynistic thrust?

In 2019, two centuries of tradition were disrupted in the staging of “Winterreise” by mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. Other women have sung the work, but she may be the first to sing it as a woman: specifically in the character of the woman who rejected the wanderer when she was prevented by her family from marrying him. Now older and dressed in mourning black, she sings the text as written in a diary that he sent her before his suicide.

DiDonato does not intend for her interpretation to be a feminist one. Instead, she says, it fulfills her artistic need to “own” the work by finding a character’s interiority that makes sense to be sung. But intention aside, it’s a wrenchingly vivid statement in performance. The dynamic interplay of piano and text contrast with the bereft woman on stage who is singing the man’s account of his suffering. She does so while visibly aching with her own love for him and with grief at her missed life course. In moments she flinches as she sings his recriminations against her. This staging, as Kathleen Kelly writes, is radical in giving voice to the otherwise silent woman, showing her as a person in her own right instead of “the projection screen of the poet’s desires, fears, disappointments” that she is in his text.

Disruptive and artistically powerful as it is, DiDonato’s approach remains essentially humanistic in its emotional charge. The woman expresses and mourns the wanderer’s sufferings as fully as she exposes her own anguish, so the scope of sympathy evoked is less redirected than it is expanded. She sings his account of tracking and engraving her on the world, about her eyes being his glowing stars and extinguished suns, without grappling with what those metaphors mean for her relation to him and to other men.

I don’t know if it could be otherwise. Could a performance of “Winterreise” escape being a didactic manifesto if it prioritized the undoing of himpathy? Could any staging illuminate the violence inherent in the sung metaphors without dissolving the artistic force of the singing? Maybe this work can’t bear the weight of everything I want it to bear—to carry both beauty and the burden of all this harm.  

A response to these questions, or a redirection of their urgency, came via another song cycle about  misogynistic violence that premiered earlier this year. Composed by Jake Heggie with texts by Margaret Atwood, “Songs for Murdered Sisters” was commissioned for baritone Joshua Hopkins as a response to the murder of his sister, Nathalie Warmerdam. In an episode of domestic violence that rocked Canada in 2015, she and two other women were killed in their own homes by a man who had been romantically involved with each of them. The cycle’s eight songs traverse grief, reminiscence, guilt, rage, and recognition of all the other murdered women throughout history, before the singer rediscovers his sister’s presence in the act of singing about her. Accompanying this arc, the music is haunting, plaintive, jagged, and wistful in turn. Unlike the piano part in “Winterreise,” whose moods and melodies are often ironically slantwise to the sung text, Heggie’s piano accompaniment fully supports each emotional transition.

Heggie explicitly likens his work to “Winterreise” in tracking the singer’s journey through a turbulent landscape of grief, and this parallel is underscored with both music and words. In “Bird Song,” the piano echoes Schubert’s motif from “Die Krähe”—but instead of the wanderer imagining a crow waiting to prey on him, this singer speculates that his dead sister might now be a predatory owl hunting her murderer’s soul.

Atwood’s text reflects her long literary exploration of women’s victimhood in Western culture, as well as her own devastation in having known two women who were murdered by former romantic partners. She opens the second song, “Enchantment,” with allusions to the world of folktale familiar to Schubert and countless other songs and operas. Perhaps, the singer says, this is a story in which his missing sister was taken by a mountain troll or abducted by an evil magician, and he could undertake an epic quest to rescue her. Then he realizes that her disappearance is a different kind of story, a human one of men murdering women, and the only journey he can undertake is that of grief.

As “Songs for Murdered Sisters” continues with “Anger,” “Lost,” and “Rage,” the songs become as forceful as Manne’s analysis, diagnosing the male fear, jealousy, rage and entitlement behind the deaths of Hopkins’s sister and all the other absent women. In the end, what joins this new work and “Winterreise” most deeply isn’t that they each journey through an arc of painful emotions, or dwell on an absent woman. It’s that “Winterreise” contains themes and metaphors bound up with gendered violence that, almost 200 years later, unfold in their full violent extremity in “Songs for Murdered Sisters.”

The collaborators in this new cycle tie it to the White Ribbon Pledge campaign against gender-based violence, calling on men “to own their responsibility to end violence against women.” But of course the cycles of violence haven’t ended in this pandemic year. In April 2020, a Canadian man in rural Nova Scotia killed 22 people in a shooting rampage that started with an attack on his common-law wife, an incident now being investigated as domestic violence. In March 2021, Sarah Everard was abducted and murdered by an off-duty police officer as she walked home at night in London. When officials called for women to stay at home for their own safety, the Reclaim These Streets movement protested with a candlelight vigil, one that was violently disbanded by London police. Kate Manne’s comment on this latest episode highlights the patterns of misogyny underpinning it: “Women’s freedoms are seen as dispensable, as disposable—very much like sometimes, tragically, women ourselves.”

Seeing these connections changes nothing and everything. For my part, I know now what “Winterreise” is, and will continue to seek solace in it by setting aside that knowledge for an hour at a time. Maybe only listening to it through the distance of a recording can make this work; it seems unimaginable to watch a live performance without expecting “Songs for Murdered Sisters” to follow as a coda. My longing for a fitting conclusion echoes that cycle’s own coda, in which the singer poses a plaintive question to his sister: “If you were a song, what song would you be?” An old song, timelessly new. ¶