Schubert wrote more than 600 songs on texts by some 150 poets. More astonishing than his prodigious productivity was his skill. The lied had previously been the province of amateurs—a genre for composers and performers of modest means and limited ambition. Schubert elevated the song partly by reconceiving the relationship between voice and piano, allowing the accompaniment to become, in effect, another voice in the musical dialogue. He also treated musical form ingeniously. In the simplest songs, the music repeats with each new stanza of text, sustaining a single affect or atmosphere throughout. As he matured, Schubert came to depend on through-composed forms, wherein the music changes always with the text. Thus the music tells the story of the words—or sometimes creates its own story altogether. There are also so-called “dramatic lieder,” which mimic the features of staged vocal genres.
All three types are found in Die schöne Müllerin (1823), a collection of 20 songs that can be separated into five quasi-operatic acts. The self-absorbed, typically Romantic lyrics were penned by Wilhelm Müller (1794–1827), and trace the ill-fated love of a young miller for a maiden whose affection is directed elsewhere. He sets out happily, following a stream, wondering where it might lead him. When he spies a comely young lady, he asks a babbling brook if she might be his; ultimately he concludes that indeed she is “mine!” The color green comes to symbolize their love—or so he thinks; for the maiden, green represents the hunter whom she adores. When the miller discovers that the object of his affection does not reciprocate his love, he returns to the brook for solace, then drowns himself in its lulling waters.
The relationship with the piano is carefully calibrated to affirm or contest the miller’s feelings. Bliss is registered solidly in the bright major mode; doubt, anger, and despair are matched with unstable harmonies. At times the accompaniment is confined to the onomatopoeic representation of the objects in the miller’s world, other times the piano reveals things that the text otherwise only suggests. There’s a hunting call, for example, that suggests the presence of the maiden’s other suitor. The piano also offers a series of gestures that suggest flirtation, depicts butterflies in the stomach, portrays impatience (the title of the seventh song), and at the end, paints a musical picture of world-weariness. The final song (“The Brook’s Lullaby”) is cast in a key far distant from that of the first one (“Wandering”), suggesting the emotional journey the miller has traveled. The water sings back to him at the end, convincing him in vaguely sympathetic fashion to take his own life, speaking soothingly of the rest that death will provide, and pledging that the heavens that will open up to welcome him.
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Of all the most celebrated Viennese composers, Franz Schubert (1797–1828) was its only native son; Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms moved there from elsewhere. The twelfth child of poor parents (his father taught grade school), he began composing at the age of 13, after which he joined the Imperial Court Chapel Choir. Through that position, he received an excellent musical education. Reviewers panned his earliest compositions, however, leaving their performance and preservation to Schubert’s intimate circle of friends. His career improved after 1821 and the unveiling of his song “Der Erlkönig,” a creepily intricate setting of a Goethe poem about a boy’s murder by an evil spirit. There followed a series of vocal masterpieces, along with large-scale chamber and symphonic works and a cluster of still neglected theater pieces.