Schubert's 'Winterreise' Paints Bleak Landscape For Bill T. Jones The choreographer and dancer says that music "helps us bear the pain through sheer beauty and intensity."


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. As cold weather descends on most of the country, we're asking for winter songs - songs that evoke the season and memories that come with them.

So far in our series, we've heard some lighthearted or slightly wistful tunes. Well, this next song goes to a far icier place. It's the choice of the celebrated dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones. His winter song comes from "Winterreise" - "Winter Journey" - by Franz Schubert, the song cycle about a solitary traveler in a savage winter whose heart is frozen in grief.

Bill T. Jones chose the last song in that song cycle, "Der Leiermann" - or "The Hurdy-Gurdy Man."


BILL T. JONES: For me, it's the musical arrangement underneath that speaks about a bleak landscape. And this bleak landscape takes me back to a day when I was in fourth grade, out on the edge of town looking out on a snow-covered highway many, many yards away from my window. I should have been paying attention, but I was dreaming.

And then I saw a lone figure walking across that on a very, very cold day. And you know how it is when the wind blows and you have to turn your back against the wind?

BLOCK: Oh, yeah.

JONES: And I felt so sorry for that person, and then I realized that person was my father.


JONES: That my father, who was completely out of work - he had been the director of his own business, as a contractor in the heyday of the migrant stream back in the late '50s. But now, that business had died. He was up in the chilly north with his family, broke and sick, and he had to get to this very insignificant job in a factory miles and miles away - a black man with no car, trying to hitchhike and no one picking him up, and he has to walk that 10 miles to get to the factory.

And I'm sitting in this warm classroom getting educated, not paying attention to the teacher, and suddenly feeling torn between two worlds. And this music, when I hear it, I feel for my father. And there's something about art that can be -yes - depressing, but helps us bear the pain through just sheer beauty and intensity.


BLOCK: I'm imagining that your impulse would have been to run out of that classroom and get your dad inside - warm him up somehow?

JONES: No. It was more complicated than that because that was my job - to be in school. One of the reasons I was in school was so that I did not have to be out there with him. And that was the painful thing about this sort of class-climbing that we all, in this country, are subjected to. We're supposed to do better than our parents.

And did I want the whole class to say look, look out there - there's my father, impoverished, freezing, walking in the road? It was a very strange moment, Melissa, very strange. I was, in a way, paralyzed - doing what I should do, and not knowing what I wanted to do.


BLOCK: Bill, did you ever tell your father that you had seen him that day?

JONES: Oh, wow. No. I never did. I thought it would have embarrassed him. Should I have? I wonder. I never did.

BLOCK: That must be such a painful memory to turn to when you hear this song.

JONES: Well, and that's what I say. I love this song because this is very much in the romantic spirit. This whole "Winterreise" is in the feverish, depressed mind of a young man who has come unhinged because he's lost the one he loves. And he wanders ever deeper into this bleak wilderness with these thoughts of revenge and memories of happiness, and finally ends up listening - almost in madness - to this organ grinder. And, of course, the organ grinder is life itself and the passage of time.


BLOCK: The narrator of this song is listening to this hurdy-gurdy player. The player is barefoot; standing on the ice barefoot, staggering. And here's the killer part: No one is listening to him, not even the dogs.

JONES: However, the narrator is listening, but has he so much disappeared that he is no one? Ah, yes. The young man is doomed but it's sweet, it's haunting, it's delicious - almost like freezing to death. When we freeze to death, we go to sleep. And that's just at the end of that cycle and I imagine that's what Schubert was trying to suggest. It's beautiful and painful, which is what I want from art.


BLOCK: Listening to this again after all those years, you're taken right back to that classroom and that image on the freezing snow?

JONES: That has been - it's taken on a greater weight over the years because now, more and more, my body speaks to the body that I saw from a child's distance from a parent. I understand him inside and even outside now. I'm not afraid of aging, but the idea of what is success in life; what is a life well spent? His dreams were behind him at that point. Where are my dreams now?

I loved him so much for getting out there that day with no car, and really not talking to us about it, not complaining, just facing it alone. I love him so much, but did I ever tell him I loved him? Probably not.

BLOCK: I bet you showed him.


BLOCK: I bet you did.

JONES: He liked me. He liked me. Yes, he did. And that's so important, so important.


BLOCK: Well, Bill T. Jones, thank you so much.

JONES: Oh, thank you very much, Melissa.


BLOCK: That's a 1955 recording of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau performing "Der Leiermann" from Schubert's "Winterreise," the winter song choice of Bill T. Jones, cofounder of the Bill T. Jones Arnie Zane Dance Company, and executive artistic director of New York Live Arts. His company premieres its latest work, "Story Time," next month.

And all winter, we'll be listening to winter song stories. We've loved receiving yours and lest you think a musical memory of winter has to be as heavy as that story we just heard, well, Bill T. Jones suggested another, too.

JONES: You know, I did consider - I don't know if you remember an old K-star hit, the sun is shining, da dee da dum, but I can weather the storm. It's a little campy, a little offhanded.


BLOCK: Please send us your winter song, and a story or memory that goes with it, at Don't forget to put Winter Song in your subject line.


BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News.

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