An evocative contemplation on mortality

March 29, 2020

LGS International hosts a riveting performance of Austrian composer Schubert’s Winterreise, directed by Berlin-based Andreas Heise.

The production design was minimal: modest lighting, black backdrop, three performers, one piano and a chair. — Photo courtesy:

It was a rainy March evening, well before the city was shut down. I made my way to Lahore Grammar School International’s campus in Phase 8, where Anne-Marie Schimmel Haus had organised a performance of Austrian composer Franz Schubert’s Winterreise (German for Winter Journey), in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut Pakistan.

One of Schubert’s most famous works, Winterreise is a song cycle, i.e. a collection of individual songs with a unifying theme or subject, but not necessarily a story accompanying it. To put it in another way, if the 1800s had concept albums, Winterreise would be among the most famous ones of the time.

Winterreise is usually performed by a vocalist with piano accompaniment. This production, directed by Berlin-based Andreas Heise, was a modern interpretation that added contemporary dance to the mix. Each element — piano, vocals and dance — had a separate performer with Juliane Banse as soprano, Alexander Krichel on piano and István Simon as the dance artist.

Once the auditorium filled up, the performance began, starting with two of the performers lying on the stage, embracing each other, while another stood shrouded in darkness and with one hand on a chair, the only prop in the production, besides the piano off to the right-most section of the stage. In seconds, the stark minimalism of the production design established itself. One of the performers on the floor got up, as if from a deep sleep, and walked over to the piano. He began playing and the artist standing in the dark started singing.

For a while, the performance centred only on the vocalist and the pianist, with Simon lying on the ground before eventually joining in. The tone of the performance was sombre and the songs in German.

While the production is a song cycle, not a play with a story, it was hard not to think of a narrative. The performances were far too compelling and authentic to not imagine one. In fact, it was easy to imagine one, because despite its minimalism, the show wasn’t without dramatic flourish.

Simon, the dancer, constantly appeared as if he was aching to belt out…something. Banse, the vocalist, joined Simon throughout a lot of the dance choreography, suggesting some kind of relationship between the two characters. Krichel established distance from the performance’s main narrative early on in the performance, as he shot Banse a curt look when she approached him; a distance that both Banse and Simon maintained for the most part, until they reached a breakthrough: Simon disappeared from the stage and Banse and Krichel exchanged a long look and a smile. Half-way through the show, the stage lighting changed from orange-yellow to turquoise-blue.

Trying to imagine a narrative was not without challenge, however. If you blinked you missed tiny nuances – an expression, a flick of a wrist, a certain movement. But even this, to me, made the experience engaging.

Trying to imagine a narrative was not without challenge, however. If you blinked you missed tiny nuances – an expression, a flick of a wrist, a certain movement. But even this, to me, made the experience engaging.

Being engaged was important, since there were distractions aplenty throughout the performance: phones going off, photos being taken with flash, packets of chips being opened and applause every few minutes. This was clearly a novel experience for the vast majority in the audience. To be fair, it was so for me as well. Apparently, not everyone found the show very compelling, considering that people slowly trickled out of the auditorium throughout the performance.

Nevertheless, the performance ended to a standing ovation, with most of the audience still present. I left the auditorium and caught up with the director, Andreas Heise, for a brief chat about his production.

“[Winterreise] was composed by Franz Schubert in 1828 towards the end of his life,” Heise told me. “At the time, it was a very new way of making music, in the way that the piano and the voice are equal. It’s almost like a duet.”

He said that Winterreise was composed as chamber music, meant to be played in intimate spaces like living rooms. It’s only in the past 20 or so years that more elaborate, performance-based productions have been staged. The piece was uniquely personal to Schubert’s life. “It’s called Winter Journey, but it’s really a journey towards death, which [Schubert] was facing because of his illness.”

Normally, Winterresie is sung by a male performer, but Heise wanted to take a different route. “When we started thinking about the project…we thought we wanted to do it with a female singer and a male dancer,” he said. This was a departure from the way Schubert originally created the piece, as the singer and pianist are the same person, but in this production “all three artists are one person.”

The director explained that his reasoning behind his inclusion of dance was “to merge not only the piano and the voice, but movement as well, which is a universal language that everyone can understand.” This also opened up the production to international audiences.

While he felt that Winterreise doesn’t have a story, Heise nevertheless offered his thoughts on a potential narrative. “Every song is connected in a cycle, but there is no storyline as such. We know that it is [about] a person that is going through a love that is lost, but [is] also giving up hope. So, it’s walking towards death basically.”

Nevertheless, he insisted on the ambiguity of the piece. “But it is more abstract than you would think,” he said. “So the audience can involve their fantasy and imagination to whatever they want this to be. The source of music and poetry is emotions and feelings, and that [is what] we wanted to bring across.”

Andreas Hesie’s Winterreise, then, is an evocative performance, designed to provide audiences a blank canvas onto which they can project their own interpretation of what it means to be in the winter of one’s life and to confront the unforgiving inevitability of death.

Confronting the dread of mortality, as I’m reminded when I see a bottle of hand sanitiser at the reception desk on my way out, is timelier than any of us would care to admit these days. 

An evocative contemplation on mortality