From Major to Minor – Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin

With the song-cycle Die Schöne Müllerin (“The Miller’s Lovely Daughter”), Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) crafts one of his most loved and deeply-felt works. Its beguilingly simple tale of youthful optimism and unrequited love is a universal one in which the protagonist, an infatuated young miller, lurches from fervent passion to the leaden depths of despair and, ultimately, perdition.

After following this emotional journey from light into darkness, it is tempting to draw parallels with Schubert’s own lovelorn and tragically short life and to glean possible insights from the troubled circumstances of its conception.

Johann Michael Vogl and Franz Schubert
Johann Michael Vogl and Franz Schubert

Composers are not generally noted for their dashing good looks and Schubert was certainly no exception. In a caricature by his libertine friend, the poet and artist Franz von Schober, Schubert cuts a comically short and tubby figure next to his collaborator, the great baritone Johann Michael Vogl. It seems that Schubert was rather shy, sensitive and socially awkward but he revelled in his musical soireés, often carousing until the early hours. He was passionate, earnest and usually rose early to work industriously throughout the day (unless he was hung-over). His lifestyle was somewhat irregular and he could sometimes be found composing in taverns (although this is unlikely to be the reason for his many unfinished works).

In spite of his good nature, he was never successful romantically and it is likely that his carousing with Schober involved visiting brothels when he had the money. (His school friend once wrote disapprovingly that Schubert’s “craving for pleasure dragged his soul down to the slough of moral degradation”). In his annus horribilis of 1823, Schubert underwent weeks of largely ineffectual (but painful) medical treatment for syphilis, a disease considered to be a death sentence for the time. It was the unhappiest period of his life; he was having dark, depressive and suicidal thoughts which he poured into an alarming poem Mein Gebet (“My Prayer”). But somehow his innate creativity prevailed for it was around this time that he started work on Die Schöne Müllerin, completing it after a blissful sojourn in the countryside.

In Die Schöne Müllerin, Schubert applies his masterly alchemic skills (again) to transform rather mediocre poetry into musical gold. His source was the first volume in a collection of poetry by the contemporary German lyric poet Wilhelm Müller (1794 – 1827) entitled Gedichte aus den hinterlassenen Papieren eines reisenden Waldhornisten (“Poems from the posthumous papers of a travelling horn player”). The poems are full of stock-in-trade images drawn from the prevailing German Romantic tradition: a solitary wanderer seeking solace, affirmation and redemption in the world, Nature in full bloom (replete with birdsong, flowers, rivers, forests), with the ever encroaching gloom of helplessness and despair.

Schubert quickly went to work on a musical setting, perhaps unaware that Müller had penned the verses with exactly this in mind. Like a good dramatist, he chose 20 of the 23 poems and dispensed with Müller’s rather satirical prologue and epilogue to produce a leaner narrative entirely from the young miller’s viewpoint. (The miller’s girl on the other hand is a remote figure who is mostly conjured up in the youth’s febrile imaginings). With its suggestive musical language, attuned to the subtleties and nuances of the text, the end result is a song-cycle that transforms Müller’s poetry with Schubert’s own deep psychological insights into a timeless work of art.

Landscape with mill (François Boucher)
Landscape with mill (François Boucher)

All is sunshine and light at the opening of the story when the recently apprenticed young miller sets out on his journey. He follows a babbling brook in the direction of a mill where he finds work, quickly falling under the spell of the miller’s daughter. His soaring infatuation is brought crashing to earth by the arrival of a virile huntsman whom the girl clearly prefers to the tongue-tied and reticent miller. Jealousy and rage quickly turn to inconsolable grief and the miller ends his misery for good in the gentle embrace of the brook.

Schubert’s mastery lies in coaxing the listener by degrees to identify with the miller. By the end of the work, instead of dismissing the miller as a foolish, feckless and impressionable youth, the listener shares the miller’s joys and torments, making his eventual demise seem even more poignant.

Das Wandern
Das Wandern

Several of the songs are set in strophic form where the same music is used for each verse and it is here that Schubert gives us a master class in creating pliant melodies: melodies which are flexible enough to accommodate changes of vocal coloration for the different verses. For instance, the cheerful and folksy walking song Das Wandern overflows with optimism and establishes the rustic setting at the opening of the work, evoking the turning and splashing of a watermill. The simplicity of the strophic songs Morgengruss and Des Müllers Blumen suggest the miller’s naivety and self-absorption. In the most famous song, the hushed and breathless Ungeduld, the miller blurts out his undying love for the miller’s daughter. For the later strophic songs Die Liebe Farbe and Trockne Blumen, there is a marked mood swing and the miller’s suffocating grief and isolation is reflected in the music’s stultified lyrical canvas.

At the end of the tale when all is lost, Schubert in a master-stroke pens a haunting, sweet lullaby as the brook gently rocks the miller to contented, eternal sleep while contemplating the vastness of Nature. Rarely has there been such a moving piece of music in such a sunny major key.

Wanderer above the sea of fog
Wanderer above the sea of fog (Caspar David Friedrich)

Die Schöne Müllerin speaks from the heart with such startling simplicity and directness that no biographical analysis or deconstruction of the text is really necessary to appreciate this extraordinary musical journey. Perhaps composing the music was therapeutic for Schubert as it saw him through his darkest hours? Did he pour his own feelings of resignation and loss into the work? Maybe. But whatever the case, its composition gave Schubert a new impetus and maturity in his writing for in the last five years of his life, (and despite his declining health), he produced some of his finest and best-known compositions including the Symphony No. 9 “Great”, the String Quartet “Death and the Maiden”, the String Quintet in C, the Octet, and his other great song cycle on poems of Müller, Die Winterreise.

In the month before he died it’s rather fitting that Schubert should return to Müller’s poetry for the solo song Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (“The Shepherd on the Rock”). This time the journey is very different: from a shepherd’s feelings of loneliness and sorrow on a mountain top, to his optimism and joy at the prospect of being reunited with his sweetheart. One imagines Schubert with a twinkle in his eye as he composes this showpiece for Anna Milder-Hauptmann, a talented opera singer he’d adored since childhood.

Kevin Painting

Published 29 April on primephonic.