INKPOT#76 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: SCHUBERT Die Schne Mullerin – An Inktroduction
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) Die Schne Mullerin D795
The Fair Maid of the Mill
An Inktroduction by Jonathan Bushrod
The Lied (literally “song” in German) as a genre reached its highpoint in the works of Schubert (left), who transformed it from a simple vocal line with piano accompaniment to a sophisticated and flexible form as potent and expressive as any other. Words and music are on an equal footing, but that does not mean that the piano part takes a back seat – in fact, such close attention to the meaning of the words allows for far more expressive possibilities, and having singer and pianist as equal protagonists means there is greater dramatic potential, so you often find that layers of meaning, subtexts and imagery can be revealed through the composer’s use of the instrument.
Beethoven had given the lead in writing song cycles, with his An die entfernte Geliebte (“To the Distant Beloved”) a work which excited Schubert greatly, and sparked a couple of early attempts at composing a song cycle of his own, a few years before embarking on the first of his two masterpieces in the genre, Die Schne Mullerin.
Schubert’s melodic imagination is unmatched in its fluency and originality, and this no better exemplified than in Die Schne Mullerin, a collection of 20 Lieder which has all the simplicity and tunefulness of a set of folk songs allied to the drama and structural cohesion you would expect of the finest opera, and all this achieved with just a voice and piano.
Background. Song had been a crucial part of Schubert’s compositional make up in his formative years, and the composer returned to the genre of the lied throughout his career, yet by 1823 it was forming a less significant part of his output. The small but devoted group of young intellectuals who formed his circle of friends were aware of his talents in the intimate drawing-room surroundings of the Schubertiad (the name generally given to the evenings of poetry, music and socialising that revolved around the composer) and he was getting an increasing number of songs published, but success in domestic music-making was by definition on a small scale, and the ambitious Schubert was desperate to be a major figure.
In Vienna at this time, with Beethoven still the dominant presence in concert music, the opera house presented his best chance of wider public acclaim. So in one sense all the songs, symphonies and quartets of his early maturity (many of which are masterpieces) can be seen as an apprenticeship for his attempt at the big league: over 400 of his 600-plus songs were written by the time he was 21. Although he never gave up writing songs altogether, there is a definite falling-off in his Lieder output which coincides with the abortive opera projects of the period. For example, in the 17 months from May 1821 to September 1822, he wrote just a dozen songs – a remarkable change from the time when one month alone would see that many.
It was only with the first onset of illness at the end of 1822 and the collapse of his operatic career the following year that he returned to song-writing with anything like his former intensity. But in adversity, his previous career proved a productive fall-back, and before embarking on his next career change, as a composer of large scale symphonic and church music, he found inspiration in a cycle of poems by his near contemporary Wilhelm Mller.
The words. Mller (left) was in a social circle very similar to Schubert’s, and it was out of an elaborate party game of a kind that Schubert himself may have enjoyed that the poems of this cycle evolved. They were designed as a gentle parody of popular rustic romances of the time, but those telling of a sensitive young miller and his unrequited love for his boss’s daughter (the Mllerin of the title) caught the composer’s imagination. He started work on them in the summer of 1823, possibly during a stay in hospital under treatment for syphilis, which he knew was incurable.
The tragic aspect of the miller’s story must have struck a chord with a composer whose own ambitions and optimism had been dashed by illness and professional misfortune. He removed Mller’s prologue and epilogue as well as four other poems which did not fit with his conception, and set about creating a folk tale of great power, returning it to its origin by stripping away Mller’s sophisticated sheen of irony and detachment. Schubert had a tremendous nose for taking what he required from a text, and had no qualms about altering it to suit his own ends.
The music. Schubert realised that although he had abandoned the original prologue and epilogue, he could retain that aspect of Mller’s structure quite easily by providing a strong opening number. The young miller is introduced wandering merrily through the countryside, singing of the joys of being a miller out on the road looking for work, with no hint of the trouble that he will encounter. His song is heard against a background (listen to the piano part) which suggests not only a brisk, confident optimism in his stride, but also the rhythm of a mill-wheel turning.
The second song introduces a stream (rippling piano figurations) whose path he follows as it leads down into a valley – he entrusts his fate to it and lets it lead him where it will. The stream is one of the main protagonists in the drama, and at key moments the miller confides in it and asks its advice. This may sound strange, but it is really a symbol of both the boy’s conscience and his trust in nature and destiny. At various points in the narrative, he speaks to it as a confidant (addressing it as mein Bchlein or liebes Bchlein – “my brook”, “dear brook” – or even rauschender Freund – literally, “babbling friend”, which sounds better in German, but I think you get the idea) although he is really speaking to himself, as the brook never answers.
The old carefree disposition vanishes once he encounters the miller’s daughter at his new workplace, and in successive songs he becomes frantically eager, anxious, impatient, bids an almost comically clumsy “good morning” to the girl, then turns self-pitying, triumphant, and self-pitying again. All of this action is seen through the boy’s eyes, as he searches for assurance that the miller’s daughter will notice him and return his love, although he never actually approaches her about it. He merely clings to and magnifies the most innocuous meetings, as in the tenth song, Trnenregen (“raining tears”), where he interprets a casual conversation as something rather more. The song entitled Pause is so much more than its modest heading would suggest: the intermittent strumming of the piano takes the listener further into the protagonist’s psyche than at any time before as he dwells on his feelings, at a loss as to how to express them.
The illusion is shattered abruptly by the appearance of a huntsman. The young miller tells us all we need to know about this character, which is that, as far as he is concerned, he is not welcome, but to the miller’s daughter, he is. The boy is angry and descends into depression before accepting his fate. He consoles himself that the girl will know that he was true to her when she sees the flowers that she gave him on his grave, as described in one of the greatest of Schubert’s songs, Trockne Blumen (“Withered Flowers”). This song gives him a moment of triumph after all the trauma that he has dragged himself through. His suicide, as he is welcomed into the depths of his beloved stream, is followed by Schubert’s own epilogue, a gentle lullaby that is repeated without variation, usually for six minutes or more in performance, but is beautifully sustained.
One of the great things about this work is the way Schubert personalises the story to create a drama of immense power and breadth that nevertheless has the apparent simplicity of a folk tale. As with all genuine folk tales, there is far more truth here than in the sophisticated but watered down renditions that usually achieve wider circulation when cast as high art. Schubert has reversed this process, taking a city-dweller’s mock-romance and fashioning from it something that has all the authenticity of feeling and elemental power of a real folk tale, yet within the bounds of some of the most personal, sophisticated and original of all art music.
Recommended recordings. There was a time when complete recordings of Die Schne Mullerin were quite rare, but thanks in no small part to the example set by the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, any male singer (and a few female ones) with aspirations as a Lieder artist now feels obliged to set their version on disc.
The cycle was originally written for tenor, but Schubert was not against performances by other voice types, and there exist a few transpositions that he made for a baritone friend. Many recordings not covered in the following survey are recommendable, particularly those by tenors Peter Pears (Decca) and Aksel Schiotz (Danacord) or baritones Hakan Hagagard (RCA) and Dietrich Henschel (EMI Debut), but the ones listed should offer the best general recommendations, especially if this work is new to you.
475: 26.4.1999. up.31.5.1999 Jonathan Bushrod