Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin, D. 795

performed by Fritz Wunderlich, tenor; Hubert Giesen, piano

While we’ve addressed Schubert as the composer of symphonies and some solo piano works, his real fame and the bulk of his output comes from Lieder, songs for voice, and our piece today is one of his greatest achievements in the form. Wikipedia also says that “It is the earliest extended song cycle to be widely performed,” with no references. It’s in the range of a tenor or soprano, but as the narrative is that of a male, it’s most often performed by men.

The piece uses as its text poems from Wilhelm Müller. There are twenty songs in the cycle, and about half are in strophic form, meaning each verse is sung to the same melody repeated for the performance of each verse, while the other half are through-composed, meaning the song is played without repeats of musical content for separate verses, literally played through from beginning to end. We will talk a bit later about the demands and importance of the piano part, but there’s artistry all around here.

Müller published his poetry in 1820 and Schubert set most of them to music in 1823, omitting five of Müller’s set. The set of 20 songs was published in 1824 and dedicated to Carl von Schönstein, a military man and singer himself, apparently a respected interpreter of Schubert’s songs.

It can be easy for a work like this to be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s 20 individual songs, German poetry set to music, that in performance lasts over an hour, up to 70 minutes maybe. You might be ready to give up now, with mention of verses and meter and flashbacks to literature class in high school, but stick with me.

Thanks to the internet, it’s not hard to find translations of Müller’s poetry into English, like this wonderful PDF from, or other languages (as in this site, with its near-militaristic warnings of copyright infringement) for our use. A quick look at the poems before listening to the entire cycle might give you a good idea of the overall trajectory of the work, what you can expect from the music, and then you can listen and see how the music conveys the emotions, paints the pictures given by the text.

Some specific things to be aware of, I think, are the significance of nature. In the first song, our Wanderer speaks of the joys of traveling, of being free and enjoying the outdoors and of whatever adventures may come. He says we can learn this from the water, from the mill wheel, from stones. This immediately sets a surrounding of beautiful outdoor scenery, the babbling brook being an important part of the entire work.

I almost don’t want to give away the entire narration of the work, a synopsis of the plot and what our Wanderer feels as he goes. After a listen (or even read) through the piece, the entire 65-minute journey actually seems quite brief for the trajectory we see in our narrator.

So, before the spoiler alerts begin, and before I start talking about my own thoughts on this work, I’d like to go a little bit literature teacher on you and ask a few questions:

  • What two or three pivotal moments in the ‘story’ are there for our narrator? What moments change the tone of the work, or move it in a new direction, or give us new and important information, drive the ‘plot’ forward?
  • What are (some more of) the important symbolic elements in the work? There are a few that keep showing up throughout the piece, and some of them change meaning or significance. What are they?
  • In parallel with the first question, what are the hallmark emotions the narrator experiences? If you had to make a ‘timeline’ of sorts, only using words describing emotion, the piece might begin with ‘optimistic’ or ‘carefree’ or ‘independent’, but what would follow it? How does it end?

Those, granted, are far more literary than musical, but at least from my perspective/background, it’s a way to think about and appreciate the work by seeing how the music interprets, gives life to, the poetry.

Spoiler Alerts

The piece begins pleasantly enough, a carefree Wanderer who seems youthful and cheery, but also perhaps a bit naïve, observing the world around him, singing the joys of wandering. But he comes across the brook, and speaking to it, asks it where it’s going. This, to me, sounds like a youthful, almost childlike inquisitiveness, so then later in the work, maybe it’s no surprise he instantly falls head over heels in love with this young woman, that he has, to say the least, a weak spot for this beautiful girl, and seems to lack the emotional fortitude or maturity to be cool about it, and this is the beginning of his downfall.

The work progresses rather quickly through his love for her, the blissful moment they spend together, the heartbreak when she leaves, the impatience the narrator has, his insistence that his heart belongs to her, the anger at the young hunter who swoops in, and how quickly the lovely green color turns into a hateful green color, how it represents the ground under which he is buried. And really, how quickly do we go from love story to tragedy?

I think there are two ways of looking at this work. The first is from perhaps the more tender, Romantic viewpoint of unrequited love, an admirer pining away at what he knows should be his, at what would make both of their lives blissfully happy, and how he can’t have what he knows they both need: their love for one another.

But is there another story to be told? We’ll get to that after a brief interlude.

I know we’ve spent most of the time talking more about Müller’s work than Schubert’s, the actual poetry itself and the narrator, imagery, emotions, etc., none of which came from Schubert’s pen. However, his setting of the text is superb. While the voice is obviously the star of the show, the piano part is no mere accompaniment, serving as not just a backdrop, but the entire set of this stage play we’re watching, setting the emotional foundation for the singer’s expressiveness and conveying much of the mood of the work.

Interestingly, also, is how Schubert almost never really delves into the melancholy, depressive aspects of the heartbroken admirer. There’s no funeral march to be found here, no mournful dirge, even in places where death or loss or heartbreak are mentioned outright, the music is often still hopeful, even in a major key, letting rays of sunshine through. I wouldn’t call it cheerful or happy, but it’s never entirely resigned to despair and doom and gloom.

I think this is a hallmark of Schubert’s writing, his incredibly tasteful, subtle, restrained use of real melancholy or sorrow. As many will say, it exists in almost every surface and corner of Schubert’s music, but not like you’d find in a later Romantic like Tchaikovsky. It’s subtle, tasteful, always with a fragrance of optimism, and in this way, I feel the power of the text, the emotional impact of the story, is much more convincing. Although the text describes it, we never get too much “oh, woe is me” from our Wanderer, at least not in the mood of the music, and this could almost seem contradictory in some places, but it gives a wonderful depth and subtlety to the music.

But back to the other way this could be interpreted, and perhaps it’s a more modern idea, one that more people can relate to now that we all have smartphones and social media. Despite my constant blogging and podcasting and sharing of interesting articles or concert programs, I actually pretty much despise social media from the standpoint of the empowerment it gives its users to self-aggrandizement and at the same time envy what appear to be the far-more-interesting, successful, happy lives of who are often complete strangers. It’s by and large a huge farce.

So I want to propose a different scenario to Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin, that our Wanderer has not truly fallen in love with this maiden he observes from afar. How could he? Could it be that he’s let his own emotions, loneliness, romance get the best of him, and whipped himself into a hot mess of emotions over a girl he barely knows? The Romantic idea of the poetry says that there is much between the lines to be read, of the overall arc of their relationship, his pining away for her, but how many people today convince themselves of the same thing from following someone else’s Twitter feed, snooping on pictures of Instagram or Facebook posts, and get their panties in a wad over what they perceive someone else to be? And how disappointing it is when people don’t live up to our expectations of them, that they themselves propagated?

Well, that’s enough of that. I guess my point is that a romantic story like this can be taken two ways: it can be viewed as either the pursuit of what the Wanderer knows in his heart to be true love, or the fickle pursuit of some perceived ideal, an illusion of value and beauty that may have never been there to begin with. In either case, as we see, it leads to his undoing, even suicide, with the great difference that the former choice is at least almost noble, the latter more pitiful. But isn’t that the beauty of art, that it says different things to different people, that it can speak to us in different ways?

No matter how you interpret it, Schubert’s Müllerin is a stunning achievement in the song cycle repertoire, one of the greats for sure. We certainly couldn’t run a series, no matter how small, without featuring something from Schubert’s pen. We do continue, though, in the next few weeks, with much more vocal music, so do stay tuned.


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