A Hitchhiker's Guide?

That’s one way to sum up Schubert’s fascination, and an indirect self-identification, with the Wanderer, the archetypal hero of musical romanticism; and surely it’s a valid one too. The peripatetic wanderer of Schubert is always moving - mostly on foot because there were no cars or trains in those days - always asking “where?” and expressing his feeling of alienation with “I am a stranger everywhere” - is he not the prototype of today’s perennial outsider: the hitchhiker?

Schubert as the Wanderer

historians have offered evidence and reasons to believe that Schubert in fact identified with the wanderer as the ultimate outsider. His personal life, with myriad problems concerning his physical and mental health, his family relationships, his sexual misadventures, his destitution and desolation made him feel unloved and unappreciated. He did not choose his alienating isolation, he was just ill-fated in life’s journey, always “surrounded by joy, but alone”. He was conscious of this dichotomy between love and pain all his life, as reflected in his writings, and in his music.

The origin of the wanderer theme can be traced to the famous lied Der Wanderer. There were in fact two different songs with the same title - one, D 493, based on the poem by Schmidt, and also a later one by von Schlegel (D 649) published in 1826. The D 493, composed in 1816, and published in 1821, is the more famous and successful, and often the only one cited as ‘the wanderer’. This is also the one work of Schubert which most affected him personally, and had the most profound influence on his later music.

Schubert also composed a host of other lieder on similar themes, including the Wanderers Nachtlied based on Goethe’s famous poem, and Der Wanderer an den Mond (once translated as ‘the hitchhiker to the moon!’), plus many instrumental works, the most celebrated one being the Wanderer Fantasy.

The Wanderer in Die Schöne Müllerin & Die Winterreise

However the wanderer is probably closest in spirit to the heroes of the two song cycles of Schubert, indeed they are the “soul mates in suffering”. Whereas the wanderer is homesick and unhappy, missing his friends, and seeking his happiness in where he is not, the heroes of the song cycles are smitten by love, tortured by yearnings, tantalized, and in the end heartbroken, and descend into deeper desolation, from nostalgia to tragedy. The lover of Die schöne Müllerin ultimately commits suicide by drowning in his brook, and the wanderer of  Die Winterreise in the end joins the half crazy hurdy-gurdy man and segues into a nihilistic Beckettian absurdity.

The song cycles evoke the same downward spiral into deeper woes as if mirroring the gradual dissolution in Schubert’s life with the passage of time. The young lover of the schöne Müllerin is a carefree wanderer whose mood changes from the jaunty opening song Das Wandern to darker tones and trends downward, from love and hope to despondency and finally death. Poignant, sad, but not bitter.

The hero of the Winterreise on the other hand is the world-weary wanderer who has had it with romantic love, and in the opening song bids good night to his old love before setting off on his winter journey, which would end in an existential absurdity. No room at the inn, no hope, no quick escape through suicide, only his gallows humor to keep him going. This is obviously a mature work devoid of youthful romanticism, but full of bitterness; it was published in 1828, the year of Schubert’s death.

100 Essential Recordings

The Wanderer Fantasy

This is the most famous piece of music based on Schubert’s Der Wanderer. Perhaps more people are familiar with this music than with the original lied. The Wanderer Fantasy, in C major D 760, is based on a single motive from the original wanderer lied and although there are four clearly distinct sections which are often misnomered as “movements”, Schubert conceived this as an organic whole, with the four sections to be played without any break, an architecture with great appeal to the later generation.

The center of gravity of the Wanderer Fantasy, like many of Schubert’s similar works, lies in the middle section featuring a quotation from his own song. In this case, the second section, an Adagio, in C-sharp minor which is also the key of the original Der Wanderer, is a set of variations on a melody from the eponymous leid on which Schubert used the technique of thematic transformation for musical development in the fantasy.

It is ironical that the Wanderer Fantasy, commissioned by an amateur musician, turned out to be so difficult technically. It definitely is the most difficult of all piano compositions by Schubert, who himself was once reported to have been so frustrated by the difficulties that in the middle of a concert he sprang up from the piano stool and threw up his arms, saying “the devil may play it, for I can not!”

In fact, “the devil” of Schubert was the young Franz Liszt, who at that time was already the 11-year old virtuoso wunderkind. Liszt was an ardent admirer of Schubert and was greatly influenced by his iinnovative ideas. He modelled the architecture of his own B minor Sonata after Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy. Liszt was so fascinated by this work that he transcribed it for piano and orchestra, as well as for two pianos. He also made several transcriptions and rearrangements of Schubert’s other works.

The Wanderer’s Influence on Schubert’s other Works

The influence of the wanderer on Schubert’s other works can often be established from structural considerations. For instance, the A-flat major Impromptu, Op 90/4, in its Trio section in C-sharp minor, offers a vivid déjà vu of the famous second stanza of the song. Similarly, in the second movement of the Unfinished Symphony there is an echo of the lesser known first stanza of the Wanderer song. The Wanderer’s influence on the great B-flat major Sonata D 960, in the slow movement in C-sharp minor, is well-known. But probably lesser known is its affinity with the preceding Sonata, D959 in A major, in which the middle section of the Andantino features the C-sharp minor key again.

There are many similar instances, not always obvious, often alluding to the wanderer in the Winterreise, either textually or harmonically, more often hidden or barely hinted at. Future research will hopefully reveal more.