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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 2 October 2007

Franz Schubert: Die Schöne Müllerin

by Richard Turp / October 3, 2007

My words lead only a half-life, a paper life of black and white…till music breathes life into them or at least calls it forth and awakens such as is already dormant in them, And if I could produce the tunes, my words would please more then they do now. But courage! A kindred soul may be found who will have the tunes that lie behind the words and give them back to me.’ Little did the poet Wilhelm Müller know when he wrote these words in 1821 that within three years he was to find ‘his kindred spirit.’ Müller was writing about the first volume of an anthology with the daunting title of Seventy-seven Poems from the Posthumous Papers of a Travelling Horn Player. This first volume was a cycle of twenty-three poems, prologue and epilogue called Die schöne Müllerin (The Miller’s fair daughter). From this cycle the composer Franz Schubert was to choose twenty poems that he set to music between May and November 1823. They were published in five volumes between February and August 1824.

Since Beethoven had published his linked cycle of songs An die ferne Geliebte in 1816, Schubert had been seeking an appropriate song cycle text. Unlike Beethoven he did not seek a linked cycle but a larger unity in which each song would be complete in itself. Experiments with works by the poets von Schlegel and Mayrhofer failed but with Müller, Schubert found a poet whose verse had a particularly ‘musical quality.’ Part of Schubert’s genius lay in his ability to identify poetry that inspired him and allowed him to create the required ‘tone’ or musical ambiance. With Die schöne Müllerin Schubert unearthed unimagined levels of meaning in Müller’s much maligned poetry. Like the verse of the great Romantic poet, Heinrich Heine, Müller’s poetry (which Heine admired) was replete with elements of irony and cynicism. It is therefore doubly ironic to think that Müller (1794-1827), a nearly perfect contemporary of Schubert, never met him nor heard his song cycle.

In rejecting three of Müller’s Die schöne Müllerin poems as well as the prologue and epilogue because of their excessive length or inappropriate nature, Schubert demonstrated that he preferred to replace the ironic undertone of the poet and the naïve innocence of the young miller with a tragic and fatalistic dimension that gives the work both a personal and universal nature.

Indeed, Die schöne Müllerin had a very personal, even autobiographical dimension for Schubert. Schubert’s identification with the tragic destiny of the young miller (who is described as being a poet and musician) was enhanced by the composer’s recent diagnosis of syphilis. In the early 19th century this was a condemnation and confirmation of a premature death. In a cogent and graphic way therefore, Die schöne Müllerin can be seen as Schubert’s personal lament for his own betrayed hopes, unrequited loves and lost innocence, of a now tragically compromised life of unrealisable dreams.

Unlike Schubert’s later cycle, Winterreise, Die schöne Müllerin benefits from narrative progression. The story is brief: a young miller seeking adventure follows a stream that leads him to a mill where he finds employment. It is here that he falls in love with the miller’s beautiful daughter and convinces himself that she returns his love. Alas, she only has eyes for a hunter whose arrival consigns the young miller to his bitter fate. He seeks and obtains release and peace from his misery by drowning himself in the millstream.

The cycle has no formal tonal unity or organisation but is united by what François Tousignant has called ‘points of fatality’. Even in the joyous and youthfully optimistic opening songs, there is an underlying feeling of tragic destiny. This is particularly attributable to the stream that is much more than the young miller’s erstwhile companion. The stream’s constant flowing motion gives the cycle its musical and dramatic direction and impulse. The stream, like the story itself, flows inexorably forward. And indeed, the river in Schubert’s cycle is simultaneously both a character and a theme.

Several of Schubert’s other favourite themes are to be found in Die schöne Müllerin, most notably unrequited love and Nature. For Schubert, a Pantheist, nature was inextricably linked to God and Man, and in the cycle it is the ever-present backdrop against which the drama unfolds. The colour green is another fundamental facet of the cycle. It is not only the favourite colour of the miller’s daughter but also symbolises the forest and the hunter as well as spring and burgeoning love. Ultimately however, for the young miller who is ‘green with envy’, it becomes a ‘hated colour’ (böse Farbe).

In keeping with the cycle’s rustic and folksy setting, eight of the songs are strophic. Yet Schubert’s varied and original handling of this simple form is masterful. Similarly, rhythmic and atmospheric contrasts (for example, between Am Feirabend and Der Neugierige or Mein! and Pause) not only develop an ambiance of tension and uncertainty but help sustain the underlying and prevailing sense of unease. The three final songs of the cycle also illustrate Schubert’s remarkable ability to manipulate the opposition of minor and major modes by way of contrasting rhythms. Trockne Blumen is the cycle’s tragic climax, evoking a funeral march while Der Müller und der Bach takes the form of what Richard Wigmore has called “a spectral waltz”. In the final, moving Des Baches Wiegenlied, (The Stream’s Lullaby), it is left to the stream to cradle the young miller to eternal sleep with a hauntingly beautiful lullaby.

Musically, Schubert ensured that his music for Die schöne Müllerin was original and innovative in its spontaneous evocation of popular forms and atmosphere without becoming a simple pastiche of folk idioms. Indeed, Schubert accomplished a considerable feat in Die schöne Müllerin: that of never losing a ‘popular’ dimension whilst steering the German lied towards a more sophisticated path that was to culminate in a second setting of Müller’s poetry: Winterreise. n

Baritone Christian Gerhaher sings Franz Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin at the André-Turp Society on October 15 at 7:30 p.m., Redpath Hall. At the piano is Gerold Huber.

(c) La Scena Musicale