Ballet by John Neumeier
A Composed Interpretation of
Franz Schubert's Winterreise
The Hamburg Ballet, Hamburg, December 16, 2001
Immediate and Urgent
"Winter Journey" had been planned for the December premiere of 2001 a long time before the shock of September 11th. The feeling resulting from this incredible disaster has confused and altered our lives, giving Schubert's music an immediate and urgent new meaning. The song cycle reflects the present insecurity, the loss of trust, the tension which we now sense so strongly. A feeling as if one would be aware of a sickness but could only feel and monitor symptoms, not yet certain how serious the final diagnoses might be or how long the disease may last. "Winter Journey" expresses a form of extreme exile – an exile from oneself in a strange – familiar world.
It was my intention from the beginning – as it was for Hans Zender – to bring "Winter Journey" as close as possible to us today. Therefore, the original idea, which I discussed with my designer Yannis Kokkos, to follow the inspiration of the painter Caspar David Friedrich seemed, in the end, wrong. This artist, a contemporary of Schubert, used incredibly beautiful, magic images of nature, surrounding and reflecting the serene meditation of the people painted. As obvious as it may have seemed from one point of view to use Caspar David Friedrich's inspiration, it would, on the other hand, have emphasized the period of its composition – the Biedermeier aspect of the music. For me, Schubert's song cycle is the music of today.
Searching for contemporary images, which the Schubert-Zender work suggests, Yannis Kokkos and I discovered another artist, Christian Boltanski. Boltanski's seemingly abstract installations suggest in a very contemporary way the warmth of forgotten humanity. Rows of boxes or series of photographs document the absence of people they represent. Our backdrop, with portraits of our own dancers, themselves as children or their parents, define the image of a "House" – important in the "Winter Journey" poems.
For me, the central character of "Winter Journey" was never a single dancer. Today the image of the wanderer has many faces: perhaps a sophisticated woman, a modern James Dean, a displaced hippy or a small Japanese boy with glasses.
Music dictates to me the visual images which result in choreography. It's often not a question of what I could 'imagine' choreographing to a particular music, but what the music tells me at the moment I begin to move. Schubert-Zender's "Winter Journey" demands a stark, a simple, a clear form of movement – a movement of immediate recognizable reality.
In choreography the complete vision, the movement world created is most important. I am less and less interested in planning a ballet before I begin. For me choreography must be an adventure. Particularly in an episodic work like "Winter Journey", I like to confront myself with situations. What happens, for example, when a mysterious, dreaming man in a black trench coat with an umbrella meets a small Japanese boy wearing glasses and a pullover much too large for him. To follow the emotional reality of this situation investigating the dramatic possibilities of this simple human situation is for me the truly interesting part of the adventure.
Hans Zender was born in Wiesbaden in 1936 After graduating in piano, conducting and composition, Zender gathered his first theatrical experience as a conductor in Freiburg, After filling several leading positions in Bonn, Kiel and with the Saarland Broadcasting Corporation, he worked as musical director at Hamburg as well as at the Hamburg State Opera from 1984 to 1987. This was followed by his work as chief conductor of the Radio Kamerorkest of the Dutch Broadcasting Corporation from 1987 to 1990. Since 1988, he has been professor of composition at the State Academy for Music and interpretative Arts in Frankfurt/Main. His guest performances as a conductor in his home country and abroad, his participation in festivals such as Salzburg and Bayreuth, Vienna modern, the Holland Festival, the Warsaw Autumn Festival and the Berlin Festival as well as numerous radio and television broadcasts and recordings have won Hans Zender an international reputation, He stayed twice at the villa Massimo in Rome for a study sabbatical; his most important compositions include the operas "Stephan Climax" (1979/84) and "Don Quijote da la Mancha" (1989/91) as well as "Shir Hashirim - Lied der Lieder” (1992/19961 and Schumann-Fantasie" (1997).
Notes on my Arrangement of Winterreise
Since the invention of musical notation, music has been divided between the text set down by the composer and the reality actualized in sound by the performer. I spent half my lifetime attempting to deliver performances as true to the original text as possible – especially of Schubert's works, which I love deeply – only to have to admit to myself that there is no such thing as an interpretation that is true to the original. Apart from that fact that a great many things changed – instruments, concert halls, the importance of marginal notes etc. – one must understand that each note in a manuscript is primarily a challenge to action and not an explicit description of sound. The creative effort, temperament and intelligence of the performer, as well as the sensibility developed under the influence of the aesthetics of his own time, are needed to create a lively and exciting performance …
Falsification? I call it creative transformation. Musical works, as well as works for the theater, can be rejuvenated through great performances…
A work such as the "Winterreise" is an icon of our musical tradition, one of Europe's great masterpieces. Is it enough to present it in the manner customary today – two men in tuxedos, a Steinway, and usually a very large concert hall? Many place a great deal of importance on a performance that sounds closer to the historical original…
And although this is a good thing, we should not fall prey the illusion that the presentation of performances with historically authentic instruments can of itself bring back the spirit of the times when music was composed. Our listening habits and our ears have changed too much, and our consciousness is too influenced by music composed since Schubert's time. An "historically accurate" performance is often appreciated as an estrangement from that to which we are accustomed.
My interpretation of the "Winterreise" did not seek a new expressive meaning, but rather made use of the liberties that all performers intuitively allow themselves: the slowing or quickening of tempi, transposition into different keys, and the revealing of more characteristic and colorfull nuances. Beyond this comes the potential of "reading" music; moving around within the text, the repetition of certain lines of music, the interruption of continuity, the comparison of different readings of the same passage … In my version, all of these possibilities remain subject to compositional discipline and thus they create autonomous formalistic passages which are layered over the original Schubert manuscript.
In order to achieve a magical unity between text and music – a feature especially apparent in the later song cycles – Schubert used sound "ciphers" in his Lieder compositions. He would match the "key word" in every poem with a germinal musical figure, out of which the entire song would develop. The structural transformations in my version always arose from these germinal figures but developed beyond their original Schubertian form…
Seen from the point of view of style, Schubert's later works contain "seeds" or musical figures which, decades after their original composition, appear in the works of Bruckner, Wolf and Mahler; one is tempted to say that a good many passages of the "Winterreise" foreshadow the Expressionism of the current century. My own "Winterreise" version attempts to bring out Schubert's forward-looking perspectives…
While composing "Winterreise", Schubert is reputed to have appeared among his friends only rarely and in a seemingly disturbed state. The first performances must have caused shock rather than pleasure. Is it possible to break through the aesthetic expectations inherent in our reception of Classical music (which make such experiences as the "shock" caused by the first performances of "Winterreise" practically impossible today), and simply reinvigorate the initial impulse, the existential force of Schubert's original?
© BMG Classics, translation: D. Lucich
Perhaps no other work by Neumeier is as poetic as this one. He enabled us to feel part of an immense universe with infinate possibilities.
Ballet 2000, Emmanuèle Rüegger