Beethoven created a landmark in musical history when he composed An die ferne Geliebte in 1816. In it he virtually invented the song cycle, a group of linked songs set to six poems written by A. J. Jeitteles. It was the task of Schubert to take this idea and develop it into a much larger canvas, in his two great song cycles, Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise. Schubert sets his songs individually, without musical bridges, but he still creates a cohesive cycle through tempo, mood and key-structures, ensuring the whole cycle has an overall effect, certainly of far greater total significance than just the individual songs themselves.
The origins of Die Schöne Müllerin also date back to around 1816. There was a fashionable party game, particularly played at intellectual gatherings in the home of Privy Councillor von Stägemann, in which guests took on the role of a character and had to produce verses for his or her part on the spot. Literature was of great interest at the time, especially with the growth of the Romantic movement, and it was popular sport to devise simple, folk-like verses, reflecting pastoral themes. One of this group was Wilhelm Müller (Miller) and it was hardly surprising that he created little poems about the life of a country miller. He was the only professional writer among the circle, so he took his ideas a step further and wrote a set of twenty-three poems about his character. He then added a prologue and epilogue in rhyming couplets, poking fun at this attempt to produce rustic verse. They were published in 1821.
Schubert was already a successful composer of songs, using a wide range of poetical texts. It seems he was delighted when he discovered Müller’s volume and eagerly set about putting them to music. He would appear to have spent much of the summer of 1823 on the project. He wrote to one friend at the end of November that he had composed a few mill songs to be published in four books. Sure enough, the first two books were published in February and March of 1824, then three more appeared that August, one more than the composer had originally planned. Schubert removed Müller’s Introduction and Epilogue and also dropped three of the original poems.
Schubert extensively uses a simple strophic style in eight of the songs, where the same music is used for each verse of the song as with a hymn. However despite the simple format, the songs are just as poignant as those used a greater degree of variety. The story is simple enough. A young miller falls in love with the pretty miller’s daughter at another mill. At first he thinks she responds but she then switches her affection to a young huntsman. The distraught lover throws himself into the millstream. The longest strophic songs are the opening and closing compositions, running to five verses each. The accompaniments are full of subtleties, too. Schubert reflects the mood in his wonderfully imaginative writing for the piano. He captures the moods of the characters, paints pictures of the mill and stream, and supports the drama with intense poignancy, particularly in the later songs; this is no mere accompaniment but an equal partnership with the singer.
The story begins in an up-beat mood, as our hero sets off on his wanderings, with the rapid gyrations of the mill-wheel evident in the piano. In the second song, Wohin we meet the all-important millstream with voice and piano both reflecting the endless flow of the water. In the next songs we reach the mill, meet the girl and witness our hero falling in love, leading to the song most often heard on its own Ungeduld – I’d like to carve her name on every tree and stone …. At first matters go well and the next few songs see the young couple’s growing friendship. Then, in No. 14, we meet the enemy ! At first there is just jealousy but this moves soon to real torment, where the once-adored colour of green becomes die böse Farbe the hated colour (No.17). Desolation quickly follows and the next song is the emotional climax of the cycle: Trockne Blumen (Withered flowers). All the flowers she had given him will lie on his grave. It is the essence of the Romantic style, with its tales of broken-hearted lovers. The miller and the brook converse in the penultimate song, as the stream envelops out hero in its waters. Finally comes the haunting Brook’s Lullaby , a nocturnal lullaby Weary wanderer, now you are home. In lesser hands a five-verse slow-paced strophic song could become monotonous but instead Schubert creates something timeless, even with a touch of sublimity, as he brings his tragic tale to a serene close.