Before becoming a professional singer in the mid-1990s, Ian Bostridge was on track for a distinguished academic career. He’d studied history and philosophy at Cambridge and Oxford, earning a Ph.D. for a dissertation about witchcraft in the 17th and 18th centuries.
That background has often caused Bostridge to be tagged as an intellectual or overly cerebral singer. The label, though, makes little sense in the context of the highly expressive performances he creates on stage and in recordings. (“I agree with you on that,” said the tenor with a laugh during a recent interview.)
But Bostridge’s training is clearly evident in “Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession” (Knopf), his erudite yet approachable book on “Winterreise,” perhaps the greatest song cycle ever written. In a series of 24 essays, one devoted to each song, Bostridge darts down numerous contextual alleys and byways – Wilhelm Müller’s poetry, Romantic literature, the physics of coal burning, the metaphysics of performance – in search of the cycle’s mysterious power.
Bostridge, who has recently been performing “Winterreise” with composer Thomas Adès at the piano, discusses his book at the Brattle Theatre on Wednesday, an event cosponsored by Harvard Book Store, Longy School of Music of Bard College, and Boston Lyric Opera. He spoke to the Globe by phone from his London home between tour stops.
Q. What led you to write this book?
A. I always want to be writing, because it’s something that connects me to what I did before, when I was an academic. Somehow the process of having to think about ideas, and having to connect them up, is something I find really necessary in my life, as well as the discipline of writing it down.
It was my wife, who is a wonderful writer and literary historian, who said, why don’t you write a book about “Winterreise,” because you’ve been thinking about it for ages? And there’s a very manageable structure if you write one essay per song. It will be something that you can do while you’re away, and also it’ll be like writing short pieces.
Q. It’s astonishingly diverse in subject matter. Why did you feel it was necessary to cast such a broad net?
A. To be really honest, I think it went in the other direction. I followed my own interests, followed my nose, and then the question was how that related to the song cycle. It was as if the songs inspired me at various points to go off on a tangent. But I do think that overall – and this often happens, unconsciously, when you’ve thought about something a very long time – it does hang together.
It provides two sorts of context: the context which allows us to place it in the 1820s and understand where it’s coming from and what surrounds it, and then the contextualization that allows us to relate to it, and what things can connect it to our own culture.
Q. One point you make about “Winterreise” is that we know almost nothing about its protagonist, and that anonymity makes it possible for us to identify with the story that unfolds. His anguish becomes ours.
A. It’s a classic Romantic maneuver, something Byron uses a lot. But it’s very different from Byron, because suddenly people will read a lot of Byron’s life into it, whereas nobody knows very much about Müller’s life, and from what we know there’s very little to hang the poems on.
Q. Several times you mention a performance of the cycle at the Pushkin Museum in Russia. Why was that so significant?
A. Russia has a sort of mythical power for me, I suppose, because as a teenager I’d loved Russian literature above all else. I read so much of that stuff at a very formative age, the same age as I started getting into the Lieder tradition. Then the whole thing of being in that extraordinary place, in a festival set up by [pianist] Sviatoslav Richter, whose “Winterreise” recording with Peter Schreier I knew very well.
‘You can’t just try to sing Schubert as if it’s Bob Dylan or vice versa. But there are definitely echoes, there are ways of bending your mind in that direction, at least, which can influence the way you sing.’
And then just the weather when we went. I’ve just been to St. Petersburg and it was pretty warm, there was no snow. But that year in Moscow, it happened to be one of those really cold winters and I’d never seen an ice storm before. And to take the train and see all of these trees turned into ice sculptures was extraordinary.
Q. When you write about “Der Leiermann,” the final song, you connect it to the way Bob Dylan sings “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” But the link is an indirect one, almost subliminal.
A. Again, it’s one of those things that, if I try to understand it in myself, goes back to music that was incredibly important to me at the time that I was getting into Lieder music. I wasn’t a great listener to pop music. I’d never been to a pop concert, unlike anybody else when I was at boarding school. But at the age of about 14 or 15, one of the boys in my house said, you really ought to listen to Bob Dylan. And I remember I had a study bedroom on an upper floor overlooking the yard of our school. And I remember opening the windows and playing “Highway 61 Revisited” incredibly loudly and that being so thrilling.
So in a way, it’s a sort of self-indulgent connection being made. But I think it’s important to see that there are other ways of singing. I try to write about it in a way that makes sense, because you can’t just try to sing Schubert as if it’s Bob Dylan or vice versa. But there are definitely echoes, there are ways of bending your mind in that direction, at least, which can influence the way you sing.
Q. Do you find that after singing “Winterreise,” you don’t do the standard postconcert rituals?
A. Yeah. I particularly remember one time I sang it in Rome, and I went to dinner with a bunch of people afterward. And in the end, I just couldn’t make any conversation and I had to leave. And that has happened a few times – sometimes it’s just a bit much.
I did a really exciting performance at the Barbican at the end of this tour with Thomas Adès. And at the end of that I’d agreed, because of the book, to talk about the piece on stage for about 20 minutes. And I went on and thought, I’m such an idiot: I’d done this thing and the only response, really, to it is to let it be. But strangely, I think the audience actually likes to talk about it afterward, because a lot of people stayed on to do it. But for me that felt like a very awkward moment. I thought, What on earth am I doing here?
Q. What’s been the experience been of performing it with Adès?
A. With Tom there’ve been lots of detailed things, because he comes at it from knowing a lot of other music I don’t know. And I also managed to dig up a facsimile of the manuscript, which I find very difficult to read, because it’s very faint. But Tom looked at it and managed to find lots of interesting things – chords that sound wrong and are edited out in the first edition but are clearly meant, different rhythms, things like that.
Also, working with him, I’ve really felt encouraged in going the way I usually go, which is to try to make the piece strange, because Tom does that as well. And I think we listen to each other and we find strange things – not just in rehearsal but also in the extreme situation of performance. And that’s a great encouragement to me. Because when the piece was first performed by Schubert to his friends, they hated it. And I think we’ve got to remember that and not normalize it or feel like it’s got to be done in some very natural way. It’s a very strange and expressionistic piece, really. It’s odd, and you’ve got to keep that sense of oddness.Interview has been condensed and edited. David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@
gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.