Schubert and Beckett: Footsteps in Snow
by Matthew Gurewitsch
MAPPING the no man's land between poetry and music may be impossible, but exploring it is not. "One Evening," at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College from Wednesday through Friday, tries to do just that, weaving poems and prose of Samuel Beckett into Franz Schubert's song cycle "Winterreise" ("Winter Journey"). The songs are performed by the tenor Mark Padmore and the pianist Andrew West, the Beckett text by the actor Stephen Dillane.
Last week, at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, Mr. Dillane appeared in the theater piece "Four Quartets," which juxtaposed the set of poems T. S. Eliot considered his masterpiece with Beethoven's Opus 132 String Quartet, Eliot's acknowledged model. Though most of the links in "One Evening" seem more intuitive than direct, "Winterreise" is known to have haunted Beckett throughout his life.
Like "Four Quartets," "One Evening" is a presentation of Lincoln Center's experimental New Visions series and was shaped by Katie Mitchell, a director renowned for symbiotic fusions of live performance and video. Examples include her chamber adaptation of Virginia Woolf's novel "The Waves" (at the National Theater in London and at Lincoln Center) and a titanic staging of Luigi Nono's opera-cum-Communist manifesto "Al Gran Sole Carico d'Amore" (Salzburg Festival).
In the New Visions pieces Ms. Mitchell is operating on a more intimate scale, with technology at a minimum. "Four Quartets" did without electronics completely, and the architecture of the piece was simplicity itself: first the words, then the music, all connections to be established in the ear of the beholder. "One Evening," though it, too, forgoes Ms. Mitchell's signature video trappings, is predicated on an all-encompassing sound design.
"There are just some microphones," Ms. Mitchell said recently from London. "The idea in 'One Evening' is for the audience to imagine a young man walking through the snow across a changing landscape. That's the basic aural experience. You literally hear footsteps, breathing. The songs and the poems are the thoughts in his head." (This scenario is precisely that of Schubert's song cycle.)
Mr. Padmore likens this project to a radio play. "In Katie's work there's always an emphasis on making things," he said recently from his home in London. "You see us creating this sound world, using quite a range of objects: wind machines, twigs, leaves, a thunder sheet. All three of us onstage take turns. The soundscape is the thread that runs through the whole piece."
Wrapped in that envelope of naturalistic sound the Beckett material drops into the sequence of "Winterreise" at irregular intervals, much as Schubert's songs may be presumed to have drifted through Beckett's mind. The biographer James Knowlson has shown in "Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett" that Beckett alluded to the songs often, in ways both overt and oblique.
Wisps of Schubert's song "Der Tod und das Mädchen" ("Death and the Maiden") are heard in the radio play "All That Fall" (first broadcast in 1957). Beckett's last television play, the evanescent "Nacht und Träume" ("Night and Dreams," first broadcast in 1983), takes its name from another Schubert song and incorporates a snatch of the melody, first hummed, then sung to its nostalgic German text.
The literary critic Miron Grindea once wrote that the notoriously morose Beckett considered Schubert "a friend in suffering." Yet the affinity goes only so far. Beckett would have found nothing in Schubert's melancholy to feed the gallows humor that was as integral to his art as his misanthropy and gloom. There are few laughs, if any, in Schubert. In Beckett there are many of all kinds, from howls to snickers.
Schubert's contemporaries were baffled by "Winterreise," but he predicted they would come to love these songs more than any of his others. Whether or not the prophecy came true in his lifetime, it was borne out in Beckett, who listened to the cycle over and over in a recording by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore, "shivering," as he once wrote, "through the grim journey again." Today he would have had hundreds of other interpretations to choose from, including a new one from Harmonia Mundi by Mr. Padmore and the top-flight Schubertian Paul Lewis.
That embarrassment of riches has Mr. Padmore concerned. As a noted lieder specialist, he has often sung the Schubert cycles in conventional fashion. This time his aim is to reach out to the vibrant, intellectually curious crowd he encounters when he attends the theater.
"One great spur to me was Beckett's play 'Eh Joe,' with the camera on Michael Gambon's face as he simply listened to a woman speaking in voice-over," Mr. Padmore said. "That was the kind of world we wanted to explore. We wanted to take 'Winterreise' away from the Rolls-Royce quality of the recital hall and put it into the rougher theater environment."
Hence a slightly battered upright piano in place of the expected concert grand. What's more, with British and American audiences in mind, Mr. Padmore insisted on singing in English rather than the original German. He is relying on diction, microphones and sound design to put the words across. There will be no titles.
Purists will bridle at some of these innovations. More scandalous still, certain songs have been dropped, and others will be spoken rather than sung, without accompaniment. Though the settings in question show Schubert at his sparest (surely a mode Beckett would have found congenial), Ms. Mitchell did not sanction such depredations lightly.
"The idea came from Mark," she said. "I thought that if he, who knows the music so intimately, wanted to try it, it was something we should consider, for balance, as part of the overall structure."
In London, Mr. Padmore reported, there were walkouts and a review in The Times that wrote off the approach as dangerous and silly. "I know as well as anyone that 'Winterreise' needs nothing added," he said. "But we're coming to the end of an era. Without new motivations for listening and performing, the point comes when we're just hearing different performances of the same thing. This version of ours won't please everybody. For me, and I hope for new audiences, it's very exciting."