There’s no doubting that in the form of music known as Lieder - German-language art song - the name of Franz Schubert reigns supreme. In his tragically short life (dead at 31) Schubert wrote more than 600 songs, and while many subsequent composers have excelled in this form of musical creativity, the songs of Schubert are always held to be the most perfect models of the form.
Among Schubert’s hundreds of songs are three song cycles. A song cycle is a collection of songs around a single theme or which may even, when taken together, tell a sort of story or take the listener on a journey. Schubert’s first song cycle appeared in 1824, a gigantic work containing no less than 20 songs called Die schöne Müllerin. This is translated as “The fair maid of the mill” or more simply, “The beautiful mill-maid”.
The poetry is by the also tragically short-lived Wilhelm Müller, whose surname, ironically, means “Miller”. From his 26 poems telling the story of a young man in love with the beautiful miller’s daughter, Schubert selected 20 upon which he lavished the most amazing sensitivity and skill. The cycle takes over an hour to perform, and I have been fortunate to find an excellent recording on YouTube which will enable me to link each song separately in this brief guided tour. It’s performed by the tenor Ian Bostridge, with Mitsuko Uchida at the piano.
You can download a side-by-side German-English text and translation of the entire cycle here
The story starts with the first song Das Wandern. On the surface the song talks of the delight of wandering, which a young miller yearns for, to see the world and seek his destiny. The imagery is from the mill itself - the water, the wheel, the stones - and across the five stanzas Schubert’s deceptively simple sounding music serves to illustrate so much. [listen]
The protagonist is a young man, full of hopes and perhaps even dreams. In the second song, Wohin?, the young miller follows a small brook. The wateriness of Schubert’s piano writing is obvious, but the voice line is a development of that of the first song. The young wanderer is on his way, but as the title of the song says, to where? Interestingly - and forebodingly - the brook is leading him in a downwards direction... [listen]
Already, despite the major key and the apparent happiness of the words, Schubert’s setting makes us feel a shadow is starting to fall over our young miller’s life. Suddenly, the brook leads him to a mill, the sight of which makes him stop in his tracks and wonder if this is where his destiny may be found, he certainly stops, which is what the title of the song says: Halt! [listen]
The heroic nature of some of the voice writing in the third song is in stark contrast to the melodies of the first two. Even if the young man isn’t aware that he’s about to encounter something vital and life-changing, Schubert makes sure we know it. The man asks the brook in the third song, “Is this what you meant for me?” In the fourth song he thanks the brook for bringing him to this sight which we know now includes not only the mill, but a woman. But there’s doubt. Is this her work? Or has the brook conspired to bring them together? Schubert shows us this in a brief passage through the minor key. But he yields to fate... [listen]
The fifth song is called Am Feierabend, or “After Work”. This is the only song in the cycle in which the singers describes not only his own perspective but also that of the mill owner, the girl with whom he is rapidly becoming obsessed, and others who work in the mill. Work has ended and the young man is not only exhausted, but frustrated. The whirring accompaniment suggests the mills, the stream, and the incessant thoughts in the young man’s mind. He’s feeling isolated, not part of the inner circle which includes the beautiful girl. [listen]
The sixth song is Der Neugierige. Translated as “The Curious One” in English, the German word implies something stronger than curiosity or inquisitiveness. The boy is now obsessed with the girl and realises that the flowers and the stars will not be able to tell him what he wants to know. He asks the brook...does she love me? Schubert’s setting is a mixture of song and recitative, showing in musical terms the instability of the boy’s emotional state. In Graham Johnson’s words, “Schubert never set any words with greater skill”. [listen]
At this point in Müller’s original sequence comes a poem which Schubert chose not to set. This was probably because it gives it gives quite a bit of detailed information about the mill-girl’s daily life; in omitting it Schubert makes her more mysterious and thus ingeniously adds to her mystical power over the boy. We wonder what it is about her which has made this young man start to lose his grip on reality. In the seventh song in the cycle (called Ungeduld, or “Impatience”) we have the first expression of his independence from the brook (which has in one way or another been part of every song up to this point). He speaks in almost manic tones of his devotion to the girl, using the imagery of dry land: trees, pebbles, birds, flowers and the like. [listen]
Finally - it seems - he plucks up courage to actually speak to her. Or does he? The eighth song is Morgengruss (Morning Greeting) and it’s one of many in which the poem and the music conspire to make us wonder if his polite greeting to the girl is reality, or whether it’s only a fantasy taking place within his fevered mind. This is the first of the song’s four stanzas. [listen]
In Des Müllers Blumen (The Miller’s Flowers) the boy continues to express his obsession for the girl. The poem speaks of planting flowers, and of total devotion. He has fallen into a well of emotion which is dangerously deep. [listen]
Then, in the tenth song, comes a moment of true dramatic development, although it is subtly and gently expressed by Schubert. In the last two songs, the boy has admired the mill maid from beneath her window (perhaps in fact, perhaps in fantasy, we’re not quite sure). Now, in Tränenregen the two actually meet, sitting together on the river bank. The moment where all might be resolved for the boy actually turns into a deeper nightmare: nothing is said. He only sees her in her reflection in the water and doesn’t look at her directly, much less say anything. As Graham Johnson says in his marvellous commentary on the cycle: “If there was ever an instance of someone being in love with the idea of love more than the object itself, this is it”.
The song ends with the final stanza set in the minor key. The song’s title means “Shower of Tears” and in the final stanza the boy realises he has missed his chance. The girl, clearly made very uncomfortable by his silence, simply says it’s about to rain and that she’s going home. [listen]
Between that song and the next - simply entitled Mein! - something clearly has happened, because in the eleventh song the boy joyously proclaims that the girl is his. Perhaps she has said a kind word to this moody character who hangs round the mill like a sad puppy. Perhaps she has done nothing and he imagines she really loves him despite the evidence to the contrary. Whatever has happened, this song shows a dangerous extreme in the boy’s emotional state. The girl almost certainly is not his, yet he can still proclaim their unity in his imagination with such boldness. [listen]
The twelfth song is called Pause, which literally means “pause” in English, suggesting rest or even silence. The young miller sings of his lute which he hangs on the wall, unable to express himself in song. The irony of expressing such sentiments in a song is not lost on Schubert; the piano and the voice seem to have different personalities for much of this song. The view into the boy’s inner world is at once illuminating and disturbing. [listen]
The boy’s lute hung against the wall is - in the thirteenth song - seen by the girl who for some reason visits his room. She comments on the green ribbon and says that she loves that colour. It’s clear from the lightness of Schubert’s accompaniment that she has no deep feelings for him, but the boy’s words show how obsessed he is with her. He remembers every nuance of her voice, every word, every movement. [listen]
The boy has been lost in his own fantasies and desires that the revelation of the next song strikes him like a thunderbolt. There is already a man in the girl’s life. In the fourteenth song, Der Jäger, the boy puffs and pants hollow bravado about the huntsman who comes to the mill and who is clearly a person of importance to the girl. The song is violent and short but the emotional impact is devastating. [listen]
For the final six songs in the cycle the brook returns to dominate the imagery and the story. The fifteenth songs is called Eifersucht und Stolz (Jealousy and Pride). The boy tells the brook not to chase after the huntsman but to turn back and reproach the wanton and shameless girl. The brook’s rippling is evident in the piano part, but the energy is angry, not benign. [listen]
But the boy is shattered and his fantasies have collapsed around him. The sixteenth song is Der liebe Farbe (The beloved colour). Focusing on the girl’s love for the colour green, the boy wallows in a world of green imagery and for the first time speaks of hunting his own death.
Obsession is reflected in the piano part, where Schubert has the note F sharp played no less than 532 times across the three stanzas. In the subtlest and most pervasive of manners we have before us the actual sound of madness. [listen]
After the beloved colour comes Die böse Farbe, the evil or loathsome colour. The boy’s emotions are now totally out of control. In this song he wants to rip every bit of green out of the world, to remove every trace of the girl’s favourite colour. The minor key was used in the previous song about the beloved colour. Now the major key is used to voice the boy’s wild posturing about the hated colour. The song drips with sarcasm and loathing. [listen]
After the fluidity of the song about hated colour, the eighteenth song seems static and lifeless. Called Trockne Blumen (Withered Flowers), this song sees the boy allowing himself a final fantasy before taking his final fateful step. The fantasy is imagining the flowers on his grave, and the reactions of all - especially the girl - to his death. The reference to spring in the second half of the poem leads Schubert to change to the major key and to write music which seems in a trance. There is little differentiation between fantasy and reality in the boy’s mind by this stage. The bravura is hollow but the desire for death is very real. [listen]
The second last song is called Der Müller und der Bach (The Miller and the Brook). It’s a dialogue between the boy and the brook which now seems to have become his only friend. What is fascinating is that the same singer, of course, sings both the boy’s words and those of the brook, reinforcing the notion that the boy is hearing the conversation in his head. The boy expresses (in the minor key) despair and the brook (in the major key with a more flowing accompaniment) encourages him to struggle free of his sorrow. At the end, the boy’s emotions merge with the brook’s music as he sees in the depths of the brook the rest he craves. [listen]
The boy’s descent into the water - to take his own life by drowning - is ever so subtly suggested in the piano postlude at the end of that song. The little arpeggio patterns descend into the bass for a single bar, and he’s gone.
The final song, Des Baches Wiegenlied, is the brook’s lullaby the boy as he is released from his torment. On the surface, the song could not be simpler: a five-stanza poem in which the brook lulls the boy to sleep, taking him away from the mill, the girl and the hunter. The mood is mesmerising, a perfect end to this tragic story. [listen]
This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in February, 2008.