Winterreise – Songs and Creativity Before and After a Pandemic

Margaret Frainier

About a year ago, I had a very interesting conversation with some teenagers about Johann Sebastian Bach. The teenagers were choristers in my college’s choir, and we were all preparing for the college’s annual Easter choral festival, culminating in a massive performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. My job was to supervise and help out the choristers, who had been practicing for months the excerpts from the Passion that they would be performing with the full college choir, soloists, and an orchestra. The first full rehearsal wasn’t going well for the choristers: they were bored, hot, and generally grumpy at having to give up an entire Saturday, and their restlessness was threatening to derail the rehearsal. I asked them what was going on, and if I could help.

Black and white photo of grotesques
Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Unsplash.

‘It’s just so boring,’ one said. ‘We just sit here while they all sing and then we get up and sing our bit and then we’ve got to sit down again.’

Fair enough, I said, but wasn’t it fun to think about the role they were playing in telling the Easter story through Bach’s music?

Blank looks. Somehow, the choristers had never realised the music they were singing was part of a larger drama – a story, and that the soloists, the choir, and even the orchestra instruments each took on characters. While our discussion certainly didn’t totally get rid of the boredom (long rehearsals always have their moments!), it made a huge impact on the choristers to know they were performing in a kind of musical play, and to understand their part in the story they were telling.

This moment stayed in the back of my mind as I thought about classical music more generally, and why it was that the genre still seemed so elite and inaccessible to kids who didn’t grow up around it. Blame cuts to arts budgets in schools, blame bad marketing, blame whatever you want – but I noticed how much more engaged the choristers became when they understood what it was they were actually singing in the St. Matthew Passion. I wondered if there were other ways to show that classical music, far from being remote, could actually speak to issues teenagers and young people face in the 21st century.

Inspired by my colleagues Noah Birkstead-Breen and Rajinder Dudrah’s work translating a Russian play via collaboration with British hip-hop artists, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to apply the same technique to a work of classical vocal music, preferably, a canonical work. As a trained classical singer myself, I wanted to choose something I’d always dreamed of performing, but would never have had the opportunity to due to performance traditions that mean certain works were nearly always performed by a particular gender or voice type. Almost immediately one candidate sprang to mind: Franz Schubert’s Winterreise, a 24-song work written in 1827 that functions as a dramatic monologue exploring the mind of a young person (the gender is never specified, but the text implies a young man) who wanders alone on a winter’s night after being rejected by their beloved.

Winterreise’s reputation as a pinnacle of vocal achievement for male singers almost dissuaded me from pursuing the project before I’d even begun, but I realised that if I chose the piece, I would not only be ‘translating’ Winterreise from its German Romantic original into contemporary hip-hop, but I would also be commenting on gender roles and queer relationships. The lost beloved in Winterreise is unequivocally female, and in taking on the rejected lover’s role, I would be greatly expanding the impact of the piece. (After all, heartbreak isn’t the sole property of one gender.) So in choosing Winterreise, I decided specifically to pursue the queer implications of my performance, and sought out a collaborator who would be able to help me do that.

As my co-performer and ‘translator’, I was enormously fortunate to meet Jay L’Booth via Rajinder Dudrah’s popular music work with Punch Records, Birmingham. Jay is a poet and artist whose talents are only matched by her generous spirit. Over the course of last autumn and winter, Jay and I chose ten of Winterreise’s original twenty-four songs to focus on, preserving the bones of the drama while giving us room for interpretation. Jay then wrote ten beautiful new texts based on the songs we’d chosen together, re-telling Winterreise’s tale of loneliness and longing from her own perspective as a queer BAME artist. We then brought in Demarae, an equally brilliant producer who composed ambient music and beats for Jay to perform to. Demarae’s music cleverly took themes from Schubert’s original music so that when performed one after the other, Schubert’s songs flowed seamlessly into the new pieces. Our plan was for Jay and myself to trade off onstage, so that my performance of Schubert and her performance of her new work would function as two halves of the same character’s experience, separated only by language and music genre. As we rehearsed, we realised that the final song of the cycle provided a perfect opportunity to bring together the two ‘voices’, classical and contemporary, and made plans with Demarae to fuse his beats with Schubert’s music in the haunting last song.

Photo of snow falling in front of green trees.
Photo by Aditya Vyas on Unsplash.

As the work of developing the project moved forward, Jay and I sought out performance opportunities in both the classical music scene and the hip-hop scene. We were surprised and delighted when both areas expressed enormous interest in the work, and were especially excited about an opportunity to perform the finished piece in Oxford-area schools in the early summer. Unfortunately, we all know what happened in March 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown necessary to halt its rapid spread meant that all live music performances were cancelled, and while creative opportunities to perform online have since been developed, none of the places we had spoken to were able to accommodate a performance of the finalised Winterreise collaboration. In fact, the shutdown meant that Jay and I never had the chance to rehearse the entire piece together – voice, piano, beat, and spoken-word. Where I had been a part of a four-person collaboration, each bringing their own musical skills to the table, I was now nothing more than a voice alone, singing to the echoing walls of a shower stall in an abandoned student house.

This was a huge blow to me. After spending months in development, after so much work and with success on the horizon, I saw the cancellations as a sign of failure. Isolated in Oxford and unsure when I’d ever see my friends and family again, I thought of Winterreise as a symbol of everything I’d failed to achieve as a researcher and as a performer. I couldn’t look at the score on my desk, heavily marked up with notes and ideas. I couldn’t talk about the project – I couldn’t even bear listening to a recording of the Schubert cycle. While the lockdown is gradually lifting, live music performance will be one of the last ‘normal’ things to return. I don’t even know if I’ll still be in the UK by the time we’re allowed to meet and make music together in person again: I am not British, and my visa will expire six months after I’m granted my degree.

While I don’t know if Jay and I will ever get to finish our work on Winterreise, I’ve come to realise that the mere fact such a project ever existed speaks to an enormous potential for the classical music industry to consider. We’ve shown that it is indeed to make a nearly two hundred year-old piece ‘speak’ in a new way, to an audience that otherwise might never have known about it. We’ve shown that these classical works, far from being inaccessible, endure precisely because they have the ability to be related and translated to people of all ages, backgrounds, and origins. Sometimes it just takes new voices to let them sing.