Driven out of town,
A lone crow travels with me
On my long journey.
It flies o’er my head,
Follows me from tree to tree,
Crow, wondrous creature,
Will you never forsake me,
Always by my side?
Or, Crow, is it that
I am to be your next meal
Soon as I am dead?
It won’t be long now;
Wand’ring with my walking stick
Will soon reach its end.
So, Crow, let me see
One who’s faithful to the grave;
That I’ve never seen.
Winterreise is a masterpiece among song cycles, one in which pianist and singer play equal roles, painting pictures with words and notes, creating a universe filled with fiery emotions and frosty, unforgiving landscapes.
Winterreise’s 24 songs chronicle the despair and descent of a man who has left his love, and who travels out into the bleak winter landscape, never to return. In this song, the crow, which at first seems friendly, is transformed into a malevolent shadow, constantly following, ready to prey upon the wanderer.
Singer Elena Gerhardt said, “You have to be haunted by this cycle to be able to sing it.”1 It is certainly one of those pieces of music that, once heard, is not easily forgotten. Here is an account of the first time Winterreise was played and sung, by Schubert himself, before a stunned audience:
“Come to Schober’s today and I will play you a cycle of terrifying songs; they have affected me more than has ever been the case with any other songs.” He then, with a voice full of feeling, sang the entire Winterreise for us. We were altogether dumbfounded by the sombre mood of these songs, and Schober said that one song only, “Der Lindenbaum”, had pleased him. Thereupon Schubert leaped up and replied: “These songs please me more than all the rest, and in time they will please you as well.”2
There are many wonderful performances of Winterreise. One singer whose name is perennially associated with this song cycle is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who performs Die Krähe in this video with pianist Murray Perahia.
Favorites of mine include the recording of Winterreise by Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis and Ian Bostridge’s intense video performance of Winterreise with Julius Drake. Your favorite streaming service will have dozens of recordings to choose from, from the deep baritone Thomas Quasthoff to the mezzo soprano Christa Ludwig, and the unforgettable idiosyncratic performance of Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten. I have enjoyed all of them; I hope in time they will please you as well.
- Schubert Winterreise, Sleeve notes HMV ALPS 1298/9 (Gramophone Co. Ltd 1955).
- Haywood, Ernest. “Terrifying Songs,” Radio Times, 20 January 1939.
- Ian Bostridge, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of An Obsession. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
- Youens, Susan, Retracing a Winter’s Journey: Schubert’s Winterreise. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.
Image attribution: Crow, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corvus#/media/File:Corvus-brachyrhynchos-001.jpg.