Erica Sipes: Words before Winterreise

[From Greg: A followup to Erica’s guest post yesterday, about the performance of Winterreise she did in a small town. Here she tells us what she said before the performance, to introduce the piece to an audience that doesn’t know classical music. This may be the best introductions to a classical piece I’ve ever seen, including all that I’ve made. An inspiration, in my view, for us all.]

wintergateEd and I are so glad that you have joined us here today.  I’ve had the opportunity to perform this incredible set of songs before but I was struck today, as my husband and I were driving out here through the incredibly beautiful countryside, by how uncanny it is to be able to perform them here, in this place.  The landscape that I saw out our car window is exactly what I have pictured for this set of songs –  the rolling hills, the icy streams, the forests…I love performing for this reason — every new place I perform in, every new audience gives me a distinctly unique gift and today is no exception.

We have been looking forward to performing this epic group of songs by the German composer, Franz Schubert, for a while now because for both of us, this is a very special piece of music — it’s one of those pieces of art that seems to get better with age (and I do mean that in the many senses of the word).  It’s one of those pieces that when we first ran through them and then at every subsequent rehearsal we found ourselves saying at the end of every piece, “Wow.  I just love that one.”  You can be sure that’s what we’ll be thinking when we get to the end of each of these songs this afternoon.

So what is it about Winterreise that is so different?  Why do we love it so much and why has it moved so many others?

For me, this piece of music is more than just a set of songs that are loosely tied together.  It is a haunting autobiographical sketch of one man’s struggle to come to grips with life, love, and his own death.  And when I say autobiographical, I truly mean it.  Schubert didn’t write the poems, a poet by the name of Wilhelm Muller did.  But Schubert found these poems and was drawn to set them to music when he, in his early thirties, was secretly dealing with syphilis which would lead to his death in less than a year after completing the songs.   But in spite of the circumstances, in spite of the subject, these songs apparently made him very happy.  As was typical for him, one evening he gathered together with some friends of his, in a room probably much the same size as this, and performed the cycle for them both playing the piano and singing.  The reception was mixed and it’s not hard to see why.  His friends couldn’t understand why these dark songs excited Schubert so much.  Upon hearing their puzzlement, Schubert apparently jumped up, saying, “These songs please me more than all the rest, and in time they will please you as well.”

These are not just ordinary songs.

They are not ordinary because in them so many things come to life.  Throughout the course of the song cycle you can listen for so many things, especially in the piano part:

  • walking
  • a weathervane wildly changing direction
  • ice cracking
  • a river flowing underneath ice
  • a crow circling overhead
  • one solitary leaf dangling precariously from a branch
  • dogs barking
  • tree branches rustling
  • an organ grinder slowly churning out a melody

And that’s just to name a few.  So as you follow along with the translation in the program, keep your ears open for a musical translation of what you’re reading.   And afterwards, feel free to come up and let us know if you heard anything else!

Winterreise is truly a journey.  Not just for the protagonist in the song cycle but for everyone involved with the performance.  For a singer to sing for an hour and 15 minutes without a break is quite a feat.  For the pianist to maintain the concentration necessary to highlight the singer is also a challenge.  And we can’t leave out you, the audience.  Listening can be a challenge too.  But the challenge puts us all in the same shoes as the main character of these songs.  So if you find yourself drifting off here or there, that’s ok, just go with it.  If you find yourself exhausted, that’s ok too.  But we hope that you will also find something moving in these notes and words.

To preserve the storyline and drama of these songs we will be performing without any applause in between pieces.  And now here we go – we’ll see you at the end!

Erica Sipes is primarily a pianist but also a cellist who has a passion for bringing joy, personality, and fun into making, listening to, and performing classical music. She is a blogger, freelance pianist, collaborator/accompanist, closet cellist, occasional private teacher, addicted chamber musician, and performer who is almost always willing and eager to perform with anyone who promises to try and have fun in return. She also loves helping people figure out more efficient ways to practice, prepare for recitals, and to accomplish their musical goals, big and small.  

Her blog can be found at and her website for her practice coaching business is at

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  1. says

    The remarks are lovely, I agree, but there are elements that are crucial to the audience’s experience of those remarks that we can’t judge from the text. For instance, there’s a huge difference between hearing someone read prepared remarks and hearing them talk spontaneously and think out loud. Did she read these, or is this a transcript of things she made up ‘in the moment’? If they were read (or memorized and recited, which amounts to the same thing unless you’re Ira Glass), I wouldn’t be surprised: this writing seems to me to embed a number of the traditional attributes of classical music: precision, a little stiffness and formality, control, a hint of self-seriousness and cultural reverence beneath the lightheartedness, etc. On the other hand, they do overturn certain other traditional attributes, which is exciting.

    • says

      Erica, in person, is as unaffected as anyone can be. Immediately honest and attractive. Remember that this worked — helped an audience new to classical music to sit through all of Winterreise, with great interest, as so many of them expressed to Erica afterwards. It’s a situation you and I don’t know much about, Peter. A rural audience. Erica’s specialty, because she lives in the country.

    • says

      It can be so difficult to convey what happened or was said when trying to write about talking to audiences. Sometimes I completely wing what I say but in this case I had a basic outline which I then riffed on. What I’ve written down here is what I would consider a rough transcription of what I ended up saying since I didn’t record it. Based on the reaction of the audience, I don’t believe my delivery was as stiff and formal sounding as my writing. Here’s hoping…

      Thank you for reading and for taking the time to comment.