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Winter Wanderer

The work of Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek, which has often been a source of scandal, is inconceivable without music.

One scene from her childhood is engraved on Elfriede Jelinek’s memory: whenever she was practising the piano at home, her mother flung open the apartment windows so that passers-by and the neighbours could all hear what a talented player her daughter was.

Jelinek often described how she sat at the piano by the open window for hours on end, not least in her famous novel »Die Klavierspielerin« (1983), where the central themes are her difficult relationship with her mother and her own relationship to music.


The young girl sitting inside and playing against what was outside: this image can be applied to the entire life of the Nobel prizewinner, to her relationship with art and the way she deals with her status as a public figure.

Many people think of Jelinek only as the author of angry, hard-to-read and potentially scandalous texts about women, sex and her native Austria. But these people are missing an important point: Elfriede Jelinek’s literary work is inconceivable without music. Music was the first thing that the future author really related to, and to this day it has remained a driving force in her work.

Angry, potentially scandalous texts about women, sex and Austria

The Piano Teacher

Film: Die Klavierspielerin / Filmplakat

The main character in the novel »Die Klavierspielerin« (The Piano Teacher) is the sexually frustrated piano teacher Erika Kohut, who makes fun of her students by day, and roams through Vienna’s amusement district by night as a voyeur. Erika became the blueprint for all the other female musicians in Jelinek’s work; Michael Haneke filmed the novel in 2001 with Isabelle Hupert in the main role.


But first and foremost, it’s music that has influenced Jelinek’s language. She doesn’t write conventional novels or plays with psychological character depiction and a clear plot line, nor does she supply any dialogues, development or stage directions. What Ms Jelinek offers are texts that function according to the principles of a piece of music: texts where motifs are varied, where associations and things she has picked up from reading merge with one another, where voices come to the fore then fade away again – in short, one huge linguistic melody. The Nobel Prize Committee awarded her its literature prize in 2004 for the »musical flow of voices and counter-voices« in her work.


Elfriede Jelinek

The outcome was despair rather than delight: Elfriede Jelinek was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but declined to appear at the awards ceremony. Instead, she recorded and published a video message entitled »Sidelined«.

»Elfriede Jelinek is afraid of the award« (article in German only)

There was one piece of music that she played time and time again: »Die Winterreise« by Franz Schubert


Jelinek and music is partly a story of suffering. As a young woman it was hard for her to withstand the pressure that her studies and her mother exerted on her. She cut herself, was often ill and thus absent from school.

She suffered from panic attacks that developed into an anxiety disorder. At the age of 18, the illness was so severe that for a year she was unable to leave her parents’ home on the outskirts of Vienna, where she still lives to this day.

She says that writing and music saved her at the time. And there was one piece of music that she played time and time again: »Die Winterreise«, the song cycle by Franz Schubert and Wilhelm Müller about a solitary, restless wayfarer who sees only death before him, while time and life pass by. Later on, Jelinek used the song texts in many of her works.

Elfriede Jelineks »Winterreise« in der Inszenierung von Anne Lenk am Hamburger Thalia Theater
Elfriede Jelineks »Winterreise« in der Inszenierung von Anne Lenk am Hamburger Thalia Theater

JELINEK'S OWN Winterreise

In 2011 Jelinek published her own »Winterreise«, an eight-part cycle in which her own author’s voice merges with other voices. It’s a work about loneliness and the many forms it can assume. Firstly, there is the life of a narrator who has withdrawn from life and only obtains her material from the internet and the media – or from her memories of a larger-than-life mother figure and of little sources of escape: for example, the first-person narrator uses the money for her tram ticket to buy some sweet chestnuts, then she has to walk all the way home »with the sweets in her mouth«.

We also encounter Natascha Kampusch, a girl who was kidnapped in Vienna in 1998 and then held captive in a cellar for 3,096 days. Jelinek regularly incorporates real-life events into her texts, often spectacular criminal cases; she says herself that reality is »tells the author what to write«.

In Schubert’s song cycle »Winterreise«, which he wrote in 1827, a year before his death, a solitary wayfarer roams through a wintry night without hope or a destination. In her own »winter’s journey«, Elfriede Jelinek follows in the lone wayfarer’s footsteps. Her journey begins in the confusion of the here and now, and leads ever more clearly to points in her own biography. With a total of over 20 productions to date, »Winterreise« is one of the most frequently-performed German-language plays of recent years.

Franz Schubert
Franz Schubert © Lithografie Joseph Kriehuber


But Jelinek’s »Winterreise« also tells of public life and isolation. The author has withdrawn almost completely from the public eye and ceased to give interviews a long time ago. Nowadays, she only comments on issues of current interest on her website elfriedejelinek.com.

Elfriede Jelinek was a public figure from the early 1970s on, partly thanks to her conspicuous appearance: she is a tall and attractive woman, always dressed in the latest fashion.

But she owed her public status first and foremost to her choice of subject matter, with which she always had her finger on the pulse of the times. And this still applies: when the Iraq War broke out in 2003, she wrote »Babel«, a text about visual images and the power they wield, be it pictures on TV or as concepts of the enemy, be it the photos of torture from the gaol at Abu Ghraib or notions of God in the minds of terrorists. She marked the international banking crisis in 2007 with a »Wirtschaftskomödie« (economic comedy) about money and markets. And most recently, last autumn, she wrote a piece about the most controversial man in the world: Donald Trump.

Elfriede Jelinek 1973
Elfriede Jelinek 1973

We have come, but we’re not here at all.

»Die Schutzbefohlenen«

The Supplicants

Elfriede Jelinek: Die Schutzbefohlenen

The refugee crisis has preoccupied Jelinek since 2013. In her play »Die Schutzbefohlenen« (2014, premiered in Hamburg’s Thalia Theater; translated into English as »The Supplicants«), she interweaves current events involving refugees stranded in a Vienna church with quotations from the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus to create a kind of lament that the refugees – like the chorus in classical tragedy – chant to a public that prefers not to listen: »We have come, but we’re not here at all«.

The subject is the refugee boats that sank off the coast of Lampedusa and the hatred voiced by worried citizens; this is a tale of mass exodus and looking the other way. When real events threatened to overtake the play in the summer of 2015, Jelinek wrote on, describing the Balkan route and its inhumane hotspots.

Here, Jelinek is not just a literary figure voicing dismay at all the suffering in the world; she sees it as her duty to chronicle these events. And her sense of obligation has ensured that she has never vanished from the public eye, unlike some colleagues of her age, even if she doesn’t appear in public any more. But people listen to the messages that she transmits from her writing desk, just as they once heard her playing the piano through the open window.

Text: Verena Mayer

Elbphilharmonie Magazin / Ausgabe 3

Read the complete article in the current issue of the Elbphilharmonie magazine (German only).

Purchase online

Winter Journeys at the Elbphilharmonie

Winter Journeys: Schubert's song cycle »Winterreise« continues to inspire musicians, performers, dancers, writer and theatre directors to this day. The Elbphilharmonie dedicates an entire series to Schubert in the 2017/18 season.

Winter Journeys