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Anatomy of an Obsession

by Ian Bostridge

Pub Date: Jan. 27th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0307961631
Publisher: Knopf

A singer, author and professor expertly escorts us through Winterreise, Franz Schubert’s 24-song cycle.

The subtitle refers to an obsession, and that is no exaggeration. Reporting that he has sung the cycle about 100 times, Bostridge (Music/Oxford Univ.; A Singer’s Notebook, 2011, etc.) frequently confesses his fondness for the piece, an affection that is patent throughout this illuminating and comprehensive work. Although the author pauses at times to discuss music theory, it’s not often, and he keeps in mind a more general reading audience. Devoting a section to each of the 24 songs, Bostridge employs an organization that is both fixed and flexible. He begins with the lyrics (poems by Wilhelm Müller, with German and English, on facing pages) and then both focuses and digresses in ways that explain the music and illustrate the value of a liberal arts education. In his rich, highly readable text are allusions to Rousseau, Shakespeare, Dante, Napoleon, the Nazis, J.M. Coetzee, Paul Auster, Thomas Mann, Gustav Mahler, James Fenimore Cooper and countless others. He shares the remarkable story of Schubert’s decline and death, a period during which he was compulsively reading Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. However, it is the winter journey itself that most interests Bostridge, and he dives into the text, explores how the words and music relate, looks for analogues in the composer’s life, and discusses his own performances and performances by others that helped shape his view of the piece. He treats readers to some things they would not expect in such a book: the history of postal delivery, the scientific explanation of the will-o’-the-wisp, the theme of loneliness in Romantic art, and the differences between crows and ravens.

A graceful confirmation that reading can be an integrative education that offers a surprise with every turn of the page.