Whither the Wayfarer? / Tokiko Okamoto [Contribution Text for William Kentridge]

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence 2014 ©P.Berger/artcomart Festival d’Aix-en-Provence 2014 ©P.Berger/artcomart

The words “winter journey” are permeated somehow with a mysterious sense of Romanticism. Even without having heard the music, surely many are enticed by the title alone. Unlike a fun and bright summer journey, this is a journey that is cold, dark, and desolate. But why does the traveler embark on his journey in the winter? And where is he going?

In Schubert’s Lieder cycle, Winterreise, the mysterious wayfarer suddenly leaves behind his love with the words “Gute Nacht” (Good night). It is the middle of the night and he is traveling on foot. We learn nothing of what kind of person he is or the circumstances of his relationship with the young woman. During his journey, he remembers her and laments his unfulfilled love. Based on this alone, one would be inclined to think of this journey as one of someone hurt by affairs of the heart, of someone fleeing from romantic disappointment.

And yet, as the aimless journey continues in the freezing cold, traces of the lover are gradually lost.
What drifts across the bleak snowy landscape depicted in Winterreise is a overwhelming sense of
alienation and solitude. And what is reflected here is a portrayal of humanity isolated from modern society. Seeing this, we examine anew the problems of human existence. As we do this, we sense here and there the shadow cast by death in the cycle like a basso continuo. The sweet words of the fifth song, “Der Lindenbaum,” are actually an invitation to death, and what the titular signpost of the twentieth song, “Der Wegweiser,” shows is, we realize, what Hamlet called “the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”

As such, should we conclude that Winterreise is a portrayal of the mindscape of a single individual
who mourns his unrequited love, projected onto the universal problems of mankind? We should not forget that during the time it was written, there was another memorable ‘winter journey’ in European history, one accompanied by far harsher circumstances that existed in a whole other dimension to love stories or philosophical mindscapes. Having made sweeping conquests throughout Europe in the 18th century, Napoleon’s force reaches its zenith in the early 19th century. For his Russian campaign, a third of the 600,000-strong Grande Armée were said to be soldiers called up from German lands that Napoleon had already conquered. This journey undertaken by soldiers, mobilized for an unreasonable war and eventually fleeing back in defeat from a frigid land, was a harrowing one regarded as the greatest tragedy in military history. Even after Napoleon fell, Metternich oversaw the suppression of liberal and nationalist movements, ushering in an age of strict thought control and a political “winter.” For people at the time, daily life was “winter.” Because they could not leave the grim reality, they longed for a ‘journey’ all the more. Schubert’s Winterreise is a work that richly reflects this political climate. Just as its journey seems to have no end, neither could the people at the time see a future. When we listen to Winterreise, what we hear is the shadow of that history as well as the message of protest of Müller and Schubert, frustrated at the politics of the time. Precisely because they could not send the message openly, Winterreise gives off a conspicuous aura of mystery. Consequently, this mysterious journey prompts each of us to find our own answers to those unanswered questions, which may well be the biggest pleasure we encounter in this wonderful music.

Tokiko Okamoto
A part-time lecturer at the Center for Education of Global Communication, University of Tsukuba, Tokiko Okamoto completed doctoral studies in linguistics at Sophia University. She has also studied at Saarland University in Germany. She specializes in German linguistics and phonetics.


  • William Kentridge