I was reminded recently of the saying that “Maine is where New Yorkers go when they graduate.” There are musical resources here that remind me that Florence during the Renaissance was a city of 35,000.

The occasion was the presentation of Schubert’s “Die Winterreise” (“Winter Journey”) by bass Malcom Smith and pianist Paul Wyse at the University of Southern Maine’s Corthell Hall on Jan. 24.

Smith lives in Maine and Wyse teaches at Crane College of Music of the State University of New York at Potsdam. He is also a noted portrait painter of musicians.

So in Gorham, Maine, we have two world-renowned musicians performing what is arguably the greatest song cycle ever written, in the middle of one of the coldest winters in recent memory.

“Die Winterreise,” which Schubert was proofreading just before his death of syphilis in 1828, sets 24 inter-related poems by Wilhelm Müller. It is the second of two song cycles Schubert wrote using Müller’s poetry, the first being “Der Schone Mullerin.” It is presented from the point of view of a protagonist alone and wandering on a cold winter’s evening, in despair after learning that the love of his life has jilted him for a richer man.

It is also unusual in the role it assigns to the piano, which provides the winter setting, acting as an equal partner rather than an accompaniment.

From the blurb for the concert:

“ ‘Die Winterreise’ is one of the great song cycles,” Smith said in a recent interview. “It is very descriptive of winter scenes, while the protagonist looks back over episodes of his life. There are happy moments but many more contemplative moments.”

“There is a hopefulness of getting to a better place, of longing and searching, but not being able to find it,” said Wyse. “Hope is a major tenant (tenet?) of romantic poetry, and it carries through the 24 verses.

“It’s a great parallel to living in Maine in the winter – don’t we always hope for a warmer time?”

One must forgive a publicist for trying to attract an upbeat crowd, but “Die Winterreise” is about as hopeful as Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” which led to a wave of suicides among Romantic German youth. It starts with despair and goes downhill from there.

Tears are frozen on the poet’s cheeks and the consolation of death is denied him in the first few poems. The journey toward madness is marked by stations of the cross depicting the poet’s reactions to the scenes he encounters and his inner monologue.

Finally, after the illusion of three suns in the sky, the poet encounters a hurdy-gurdy man and decides to join him as an outcast. The hope is that his sorrows can be transcended and made memorable through art.

The great soprano Lotte Lehmann describes the final scene in her book on the interpretation of 18 song cycles, illustrated by herself:

“In this song the greatest lack of expression is the acme of expression. Stand very stiffly, with an expression of absolute emptiness, your eyes half closed. Words fall from your lips in uniformly light tones, without any accents.

“You have been repudiated by both life and death. Senselessly you sway along the road without either goal or purpose. Madness which has followed you along your way has spun its inescapable web about you, impelling you to become the companion of the poor old man, who, deluded and deranged, grinds away on his organ, amidst ice and snow, without any reason, for no one.

“Bursting out in suppressed derision at yourself, you call to him: ‘Will you not turn your organ to my songs?’

“With a slight crescendo, you stagger towards the old man, the poor old fool, at whom dogs bark and whom human beings avoid. Darkness has fallen round about you. Darkness engulfs you. You are lost in nothingness, submerged in emptiness.”

Not too cheerful, but exhilarating in the way the ancient Greeks called catharsis. But then every old Mainer knows that if you start thinking about spring in January you’ll go crazy.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

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