Sunday, 25 October 2015


I’m breaking my rule of concentrating on twentieth and twenty-first century poetry in this blog.  That’s because I’ve borrowed Ian Bostridge’s Schubert’s Winter Journey from Carlisle Library.  The book is a wandering journey round Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise (1827), which is itself a winter journey.  The music is a setting of poems by the German poet, Wilhelm Müller.  I’m listening to the songs on YouTube by different singers while reading the book.

Ian Bostridge writes for that mythical creature, the intelligent general reader (I like to think I’m one of those!).  He does not assume a specialist knowledge of music (that’s good because I’m a failed grade 5 pianist) or an understanding of German, the original language of the songs (all quotations are accompanied by an English translation).  In fact this is not really (or merely) a music book.  I’ve got to chapter 4 and already the author’s very readable lateral thinking has taken me to Byron and Jack Kerouac (the wandering Romantic hero and on the road in the twentieth century), Chaucer and Samuel Beckett (Medieval strangers and Modernist alienation).  There are excursions into Schubert’s biography and social history.  There’s a comparison of the campaigns of Napoleon and Hitler.  From a glance at the acknowledgments I can see there is some poetry to come – Peter Porter, e e cummings, Emily Dickinson.

Here’s an example of Ian Bostridge’s writing (he’s describing the aftermath of Napoleon’s final defeat).  ‘The result – especially after the enactment of the repressive Karlsbad Decrees in 1819 – was a German speaking world under a spell a little like that which the White Witch casts in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: always winter and never Christmas.  Censorship was at work; suspicion bred disaffection.’

The book is beautifully produced: a high quality satin finish paper (very sniffable!), lovely uncluttered graphic design with just the right amount of space between lines and margins.  The serif typeface is elegant to read (unfortunately Faber don’t state its name).  There are frequent coloured illustrations.  Even the cloth cover, a pale bluish ice-white, is an appropriate winter colour. 

The subtitle of the book is Anatomy of an Obsession.  It’s an obsession that has lasted with Ian Bostridge for 30 years and has resulted in a book I know I am going to enjoy.  I’m glad that in these cash-strapped times Carlisle library has found the £20 for this fascinating and stimulating book.

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