A song cycle consists of several songs intended to be performed as a single piece. Often, the text in song cycles comes from a single author, or a poet.
As a result, the songs tend to be connected by a narrative, and composers sometimes reflect connections musically as well, using recurring melodies and rhythms.
Ludwig van Beethoven gets credit for writing the first one, called An die ferne Geliebte, based on poems by Goethe. You can listen to it in a Spotify playlist below.
Even though Beethoven wrote the first, Franz Schubert wrote a couple shortly after Beethoven's that are quite famous examples of the genre, one is called Die schone Mullerin, and the other is Winterreise.
Song cycles were very popular in the Romantic era, and Schubert was a part of the beginnings of that era. Eventually, composers like Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, Hugo Wolf, Gabriel Faure and Benjamin Britten all wrote song cycles.
Schubert wrote his Winterreise, or Winter Journey in 1827.
In Winterreise, Schubert used poems from his friend Wilhelm Muller. Initially, Schubert set only 12 of Muller's poems. Once Schubert discovered the other 12, he wrote what became the 2nd half of Winterreise.
Winterreise is a special song cycle, because Schubert took care to make the piano tell some of the story too, not just relying on the words the singer says.
Muller's 24 poems tell the story of a man (the singer) who finds out his beloved loves someone else and will marry that man instead of the singer. The man wanders outside into the cold winter weather, singing about his loneliness and despair.
The first half of the cycle concentrates on the man's anguish from losing his love. However, the second half of Winterreise deals with a more general rejection from society.
At the end of the cycle, the man sees another traveler, standing on the edge of the village, begging for change playing hurdy-gurdy. He considers joining that man in his travels, hoping they can make sorrowful music together.
Throughout Winterreise, Schubert uses major and minor keys (or tonalities) quite deliberately, symbolizing hope and happiness with major sounds and death, loneliness and despair with minor sounds.
Schubert's piano part reflects events like wind, ice, sun and falling tears. It's a lovely example of the development of the piano from the unnamed accompanist to the equally-billed collaborator.
Many famous singers have recordings of Winterreise. The cycle is more than 70 minutes long, so if you'd like to hear it uninterrupted, you can select from any number of famous recordings listed below.