On the standing ovation afforded Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber’s Die Winterreise in Toronto, February 27th, 2015

Wouldn’t the appropriate response to Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber’s shattering Die Winterreise recital be awed, disturbed collective silence, not an auto-standing ovation?  Of course, given more than two centuries classical music public concert practice, one can’t reasonably expect an audience silently to leave the hall. I am thinking of the very specific ways Die Winterreise addresses its audiences.

Among the many many meanings embedded in the work: the tale of a bereft, suicidal lover; a incarnation of the iconic romantic striver; a black-edged portrait of a struggling schizophrenic, identifying and recovering his double; an apotheosis of the mad death-worshipper; a self-portrait of the alienated hero-artist, and the alienated proto-modern man… (and one can go on at great length with possible “meanings” all generated by the rich interplay of text and music and performance that Die Winterreise affords),  I was thinking in particular of one interpretation that Müller and Schubert propose, and Gerhaher and Huber elucidate: the work’s portrayal of a defiant artist estranged from and contemptuous of the emerging bourgeoisie and its Biedermeier culture. This is embedded in Die Winterreise as well. Müller’s poetry keeps returning to it, and Schubert’s music (especially his piano, often playing the ironist to the voice’s “straight man”) repeatedly sets up sweet little parodies of Biedermeier melodiousness, only to puncture them with harmonic subversion.

So then, what does a comfortably late capitalist and still so bourgeois audience (such as the one in Koerner Hall in Toronto last night) do with this experience, wherein poet, composer, and performers are all collaborating in eviscerating the ideological basis of said audience’s own very comfortable lives? They lap it up and cheer heartily, obtusely oblivious to the repudiation of the basis of their lives, once the piece is over. Then coo about how “lovely” it all was and go home, comfortably reassured that their lives are just fine as is. That’s what struck me as bizarre, at the end of this concert, when the audience leapt instantly to its collective feet the moment Gerhaher and Huber finished.

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