Der greise Kopf , a setting by Wilhelm Müller , was composed by Franz Schubert in 1827 and published in 1828. It is the fourteenth lied of his song cycle, Winterreise.
Many consider Winterreise (Winter travel), written by Schubert, as one of the most important and breathtaking song cycle ever written (24 songs are part of it). For the first time, the words were set, giving equal importance to the vocal line and the piano part (later Schumann will compose in the same way).
Schubert had already set another of his major song cycles, die schöne Müllerin, earlier in 1823 on an ensemble of poems by Wilhelm Müller. Müller, an early romantic German poet, probably never met Schubert and, for sure, never heard Schubert’s Winterreise as he died in 1827.
Schubert, aged 31 at the time of the composition, is dying from syphilis and feels drawn to what the poems express: solitude, discouragement, memories of long gone happiness, non-reciprocated love. Unknown in Vienna where he is living at the time, extremely lonely and unsuccessful, he composes his most sad song cycle: all hope is illusion and the only outcome of the journey and of winter will be death. Schubert, as often, intended his work for a tenor, but the drama and despair expressed in the song cycle often led baritones and basses to perform it instead.
Der greise Kopf is the fourteenth lied of Winterreise. The song cycle achieves such unity it seems relevant to learn about the songs that precede it. A stranger must leave in cold winter, in the dead of the night. He had found love but she now rejects him and he leaves thinking of her (Gute Nacht, N.1). In Wetterfahne, N.2, the house of the one he loved creaks in the wind as if making fun of him. She doesn’t care about his suffering and is now a wealthy bride. In Gefrorne Tränen, N.3, the narrator realizes he has been crying, his tears freezing one after the other. In the following lied, Erstarrung, N.4, he looks for her footprints but is left with nothing to remember her, except his pain. The Linden tree calls out for him, promising him rest and peace but he turns away (Der Lindenbaum, N.5). He hopes that the brook will bring back his tears to the one he loves (Wasserflut, N.6). In Auf dem Flusse, N. 7, he tries to carve a memorial to their love in the frozen stream. In Rückblick, N.8, our narrator accelerates his pace, trying to set the most distance possible between him and the place where he was betrayed. Irricht, N.9, is centered around a desperate belief: every sorrow reaches its grave while Rast, N.10, focuses on the exhaustion the narrator is experiencing. Finally, in Frühlingstraum, N.11, a moment of rest is offered to the listener when the remembrance of spring is revived, contrasted with the violence of the present winter. In Einsamkeit, N.12, the stillness of the outside world is resented and the narrator expresses the need for harmony between his feelings and Nature. Following this song is Die Post, N.13, where the post horn makes an appearance but no letter arrives for our narrator.
In der greise Kopf, N14, the tempo slows down to the rhythm of an old man. But as the narrator realizes his hair is only white with snow and is still black and youthful, deception is again the outcome and desperation from being still far from the grave arises. The vocal line rolls up and down a large scale of notes resembling a pleading morn. The piano accompaniment emphasizes the howling despair with a repeated descending motif in between the singer’s parts.