I first got to know the 20 songs of Franz Schubert’s “Die Schöne Müllerin” (“The Beautiful Miller Girl”) as an impressionable teenager, some 40 years ago.
It might seem at first sight and hearing to be very much a teenage story. Young man goes traveling for work, falls in love with girl, obsesses about her in that oh-so-teenage way; she remains heartlessly indifferent. Along comes a butch hunter to steal the maiden’s heart, and the young man’s fantasy dissolves into jealousy, anger and tears. He kills himself in the mill stream that led him to the girl in the first place.
I was introduced to the cycle through a famous recording by the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the English pianist Gerald Moore. Classical in tone, restrained and beautifully sung and played, this is a version that any impressionable listener could fall in love with. What struck me most at the time was the endless dialogue between voice and piano, boy and brook, and Schubert’s unerring ability to transform textually inspired motifs — running water, heavy millstones, the strum of a guitar — into evocative music. This is not singer and accompaniment; it is chamber music for voice and piano.
The LP cover made a telling impact on my perception of the music. Corot’s “Mill at Saint-Nicolas-les-Arras” is a painting from the very end of the artist’s career, in the 1870s; presumably painted “en plein air,” it presents an image of idyllic rusticity which is surely also part of the appeal of Schubert’s cycle, written in 1823. We imagine the miller boy gazing from behind Corot’s screen of trees, longing to belong.
There is undoubtedly a naïve and untroubled way of approaching the cycle, whether as singer, pianist or listener — akin to the naïve and untroubled air with which our hero sets out on his hike. “Das Wandern ist des Müllers Lust,” the text goes: “To wander is the miller’s joy.” The music is tuneful, often with a folksy air. Many, if not most, of the songs are strophic, with the same music repeated three, four or five times for different verses.
The poems that Schubert set were originally written as part of a party game in which a group of well-heeled friends in Berlin told the tale of Rose, the miller maid, in verse, from the point of view of different characters. The poetic cycle published in 1820 by one of these friends, coincidentally named Wilhelm Müller, stripped the story down to essentially four characters and points of view: the boy, the girl, the narrator and the mill stream itself. But while doing this, Müller retained something of the party-game quality, so that even if the story ends tragically, with the boy’s suicide, the text maintains a kind of distance.
Müller’s note below the work’s title — “to be read in the winter” — introduces some darker ambiguity. The poems are to be read in the cold months because they embody exactly the sort of artless pastoral that is helpful to pass the time when people are locked down in winter. But they are more than a frolic, looking forward to spring; they form a psychological journey which, despite its playful origins and ironic role playing, is worthy to set beside this poet’s brooding masterpiece, “Winterreise” (“Winter’s Journey”), put to music by Schubert a few years later.
Schubert removed every trace of irony from Müller’s “Müllerin” original. He ditched some teasing framing poems in the voice of the poet, virtually erased the presence of the miller girl herself and focused on the psychological disintegration of the boy. The result can be read in many ways: a depiction of the failure to grow up and embrace adult sexuality; a study in masochism; a journey toward romantic oblivion. This boy never really notices that the girl doesn’t notice him, and never really breaks out of his self-obsessive bubble.
So why should we be interested in this nebbish, as the musicologist Lawrence Kramer characterizes him? Because, just as with the outsider wanderer of “Winterreise,” he, his narcissism and his obsession are part of all of us. Schubert’s music deepens and ennobles him, and when, at the end of this hourlong odyssey, the mill stream itself sings the boy’s threnody as lullaby, the cosmic gesture of the parting words and music — “und der Himmel da oben, wie ist er so weit” (“and heaven above, how vast it is”) — doesn’t seem overblown.
Surely part of the weight of the cycle comes from the circumstances of its composition. Schubert had just been diagnosed with syphilis, and some of the songs were almost certainly composed in the hospital. The association between sexual desire — however prettified in these pieces — and death is part of the overarching metaphor of the cycle, and that association must have been more than clear to the composer as he wrote.
To add to the ancient preoccupations of sex and death, class is also embedded in the “Müllerin” cycle. This theme would have had its own appeal to Schubert, painfully aware as he was of the precarious social position of the independent composer. The hero of the cycle has, in effect, fallen in love with the boss’s daughter. His fantasy of cozy domesticity is pricked by a hunter, representative not just of bruising masculinity but also of social freedom and independence.
Social relations complicate things in the cycle, but so does our sense as listeners that this is a world on the edge of dissolution. Müller and Schubert’s mill — like Corot’s — is machinery, both material and ideological, that will be cast out by the forward march of industrialization. As Marx very nearly said, “The water mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist.”
The loss of the water mill as a center of communal food production was a historical trauma to which a near-contemporary of Schubert’s, William Blake, responded with visionary force, decrying the advance of the “dark satanic mills” — steam-driven ones like the Albion Flour Mills in London, which burned down to general rejoicing earlier in the decade of Schubert’s birth.
With all these historical and psychological phenomena to feed our interpretations as performers and listeners, it is no wonder that “Die Schöne Müllerin” continues to exert a strange fascination. I’ve been singing it for 40 or so years, as an apprentice and an aspiring master, and it is inexhaustible.
Exhausting, too, if I can let you in on a trade secret from the guild of lieder singers. Quite a bit shorter than its mammoth successor, “Winterreise” — which has 24 songs and lasts 75 minutes, compared to 20 and an hour for “Müllerin” — it is nevertheless quite something to maintain its relentless tessitura and preserve that sense of the art which conceals art.
My first recording of the “Müllerin,” released in 1996, launched my career as a song recitalist. It happened providentially. Another singer had dropped out of this particular volume of Graham Johnson’s extraordinary complete edition of Schubert songs on Hyperion, and I stepped into the breach. The poems Schubert didn’t set were read by my hero, the fabled Fischer-Dieskau.
It wasn’t the easiest of sessions: As we recorded the final song, fireworks started going off next door and we had to piece it together in fragments. Graham played wonderfully, but we disagreed intensely about the tempo of the first song. His slower intuition was probably right — it’s how I sing it now — but at the time, he yielded. I gave the piece a very naïve reading which, returning to the whole business of record covers, was reflected in the photograph on the CD: myself as nerdy youngster, reading a book in a barn.
Much of the rest of my career as a lieder singer has been an attempt to escape from that naïveté and to reflect the deeper waters of pieces like the “Müllerin.” That’s been annoying for some people who prefer limpid beauty to psychological torment. In my latest recording, with the brilliant Italian pianist Saskia Giorgini, a veteran of the solo repertoire whose perspective on Schubert is inflected by her immersion in Liszt and Enescu, I hope to reach some sort of accommodation between the naïve and the sentimental, the mellifluously straightforward and the anxiety-ridden hall of mirrors. The journey to do justice to the miller’s journey is an endless one.
Ian Bostridge is the author of “Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession.” His new recording of “Die Schöne Müllerin” will be released on Friday on Pentatone.