The Kennedy Center

Die schöne Müllerin, D 795/Op. 25

About the Work

Franz Schubert Composer: Franz Schubert
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Die schöne Müllerin-"The Beautiful Maid of the Mill," one of the seminal documents in the vocal literature and a crown jewel of Schubert's creative legacy-originated in a party game. The poems that form the foundation of the song cycle were the work of Wilhelm Müller, who was born in 1794 into the family of a tailor in Dessau and went to Berlin in 1812 to study linguistics and history. In 1813, he volunteered for the Prussian army to fight Napoleon, and late the following year returned to Berlin, where he resumed his studies and made his way into some of the city's most fashionable salons with his charm and literary talents. He set off on an extended tour around the Mediterranean in 1817, developing a deep love for the civilizations of southern Europe before returning to his native Dessau in December 1818 to teach classics and work as a translator, editor, critic and poet. He was appointed court librarian by Duke Leopold Friedrich of Anhalt-Dessau in 1820 and privy councilor four years later, but his rising success was abruptly terminated by his sudden death on October 1, 1827.

After returning to Berlin from the Napoleonic wars in 1814, Müller became a regular participant in the salon of Friedrich August von Stägemann, privy councilor to King Friedrich Wilhelm III, poet and dedicated patron of the arts. Stägemann's circle included such prominent figures as E.T.A. Hoffmann, Ludwig Achim von Arnim (who had published the influential collection of poems in German folk style Des Knaben Wunderhorn ["The Youth's Magic Horn"] with Clemens Brentano nine years earlier), the publisher Friedrich Förster, music critic and poet Ludwig Rellstab (whose verses were among the last Schubert would set) and portraitist Wilhelm Hensel (future husband of Felix Mendelssohn's gifted sister, Fanny). The group was further enlivened by Hensel's eighteen-year-old sister, Luise, and Stägemann's sixteen-year-old daughter, Hedwig.

Late in 1816, Stägemann's salon determined to apply its creative abilities to a Liederspiel, a narrative play in verse and song, which would take as its subject the traditional tale of the miller's pretty daughter who is courted by several suitors. Precedents for such stories were found in folk and cultivated German poetry, as well as in Giovanni Paisiello's comic opera L'amor contrastato [quarrelsome], o sia La bella molinara of 1788, which had played with much success in Germany and Austria during the preceding years. (Beethoven wrote some variations on its hit tune, Nel cor più non mi sento ["No longer do I feel"], in 1795.) The various roles in the Liederspiel were assigned-Hedwig as Rose, the miller-maid; Förster as the country squire who is one of her suitors; Wilhelm Hensel as the hunter-suitor; Luise as a gardener; and Müller as the journeyman miller-and each participant required to compose his or her own lines in verse. Despite its convivial conception, Rose, di Müllerin ended sadly: the journeyman takes his own life when the miller-maid chooses the hunter as her beau. Ten of the poems (including five by Müller) were set to music by Luise's teacher, Ludwig Berger, who harbored feelings for her strong enough to propose marriage several months later, despite being twice her age. (He was rejected.) The entertainment was given at Stägemann's home some time in early 1817; Berger published his songs before the end of the year. Müller also saw further potential in this undertaking, and by August 1817, when he left for Italy, he had expanded his original contribution to the Liederspiel into an independent cycle of fifteen poems titled Die schöne Müllerin that encapsulated the entire story. Sometime in 1820, after he had settled again in Dessau, he added ten more poems and revised the complete cycle, publishing it the following year in his Sieben und siebzig Gedichte aus den hinterlassenen Papieren eines reisenden Waldhornisten ("Seventy-Seven Poems from the Posthumous Papers of a Traveling Horn Player"). The volume sold well, and he issued a second edition in 1826.

In 1815, Müller confided to his diary, "I can neither play nor sing, and my verses lead but half a life until music breathes life into them. But courage! a kindred soul may yet be found who will hear the tunes behind the words and reflect them back to me." Müller could have found no better "kindred soul" than Franz Schubert, who discovered Die schöne Müllerin through some manner now unknown soon after it was published. (Susan Youens, in her monograph on the song cycle, conjectures that Carl Maria von Weber, to whom Müller was to dedicate the second edition, may have shared it with Schubert during his visit to Vienna in 1822.) Those were difficult days for Schubert. Some time before the end of 1822, he contracted syphilis, and by February 1823 he had begun to complain of its symptoms. ("The circumstances of my health do not permit me to leave the house," he wrote to a friend.) He was subject to constant headaches, and lost his hair as a result of the mercury therapy (!!) that was the usual treatment for the malady in those pre-antibiotic days; he had to put up with the inconvenience of wearing a wig for over a year. He was hospitalized in May, but gathered enough strength late that month to compose much of Fierrabras, a massive grand opera set during the time of Charlemagne's campaigns against the Moors, and begin setting Müller's poems, whose hero's despair seemed to mirror his own. Fierrabras (which the Kärntnertor Theater had promised to produce, but never did; it was not staged until 1897) vied with his convalescence during the following months, and Die schöne Müllerin was not completed until November. The song cycle was published in five installments by Sauer & Leidesdorf between February and August 1824. Though Die schöne Müllerin had to wait until after its composer's premature death, in November 1828, to be recognized as both a supreme expression of his incomparable lyric genius and an indispensable precedent in establishing the integrated song cycle as a viable musical form (it was not heard complete in public until 1856), Schubert returned in the final weeks of his life to the poems of Wilhelm Müller for his cycle Winterreise, which tells of its nameless protagonist's hopelessly lost love, his frigid emotional world, and his welcome acceptance of his own mortality.

Schubert set only twenty of Müller's 25 poems in his finished song cycle, omitting those that elucidated the character of the miller-girl to make her seem more an idealization of love than a recognizable human participant in the story. Notre Dame faculty member and German Lieder specialist Susan Youens summarized the cycle's dramatic progression: "The miller goes wandering, the awakening of love, his hopes for love's realization, the delusion that his love is reciprocated, the arrival of the hunter and the miller-maid's attraction to him, the miller's despair and death."

The first five songs depict the miller in the opening scene of this aphoristic drama. Das Wandern ("Wandering") and Wohin? ("Where?") show the lad still untroubled by love, delighting as his own wandering parallels that of the rushing brook, which is evoked both by Müller's poems and by the ceaseless motion of the piano accompaniment. The miller's pleasant travels are interrupted (Halt!) by the sight of a mill, with the piano suggesting not only its constantly turning wheel but also foreshadowing the tragic part that it comes to play in the tale. The miller-maid enters the story with Danksagung an den Bach ("Giving Thanks to the Brook"), whose tranquility serves as an ironic foil for the tragic sacrifice that she would later cause the journeyman to make. In Am Feierabend ("On the Restful Evening"), the incessant piano figurations previously used to evoke the wheel and the brook also now come to signify the lad's unsettled feelings as he questions his own fitness to inspire love.

Obsessed with longing but inhibited by youthful insecurity, the swain tries to work up his courage by addressing his question not to the miller-girl herself but to the brook in Der Neugierige ("The Questioner") and to the wider realm of all nature, German Romanticism's mirror and confidant of love, in Ungeduld ("Impatience").

The miller fights down his shyness and keeps a night vigil beneath the girl's window until she awakes (Morgengruss ["Morning Greeting"]), but she quickly turns away when she sees him. (Graham Johnson, the English accompanist and Lieder authority who has recorded Schubert's complete songs for Hyperion with several vocalists, speculated that the maid may have feared the lad was a voyeur by citing the second verse: O just let me stand far off and gaze at your beloved window from the far distance! Little blonde head, come out!) In Des Müllers Blumen ("The Miller's Flowers"), the miller imagines planting flowers in the garden beside the house that will whisper "forget me not" to her.

Though Müller's words and the subtlety of Schubert's music may be perceived as blurring the line between reality and delusion by this point in the cycle, boy and girl seem to come together in Tränenregen ("Shower of Tears"), but he is speechless and can only admire her reflection in the brook's rippling surface before his tears blur the watery mirror and she leaves for home, sensing something inclement both in the weather and in her companion's behavior. He stays behind, held by the uncanny lure of the stream. After this curious encounter, the lad decides that he has won her love in Mein! ("Mine!"), a sentiment apparently confirmed by Pause, in which he reveals that he is a musician, and Mit dem grünen Lautenbande ("With the Green Lute Ribbon"), when she tells him she is fond of the color green.

The lad's dream of love is shattered by the arrival of Der Jäger-"The Hunter"-as a rival for the girl's attention. The miller resorts again to imploring the brook to be his messenger and dissuade the maid from her inconstancy in Eifersucht und Stolz ("Jealousy and Pride"), but to no avail. Distraught, he contemplates his own death in Die liebe Farbe ("The Favorite Color") and Die böse Farbe ("The Evil Color"), in which his beloved's favored hue symbolizes first the mantle of verdant earth that will be his grave and then the color of the huntsman's forest that he would bleach white with his tears of farewell. Trock'ne Blumen ("Withered Flowers") is a poignant contemplation of the inexorable turning of the seasons as a reflection of the passing of love.

Der Müller und der Bach ("The Miller and the Brook") and Des Baches Wiegenlied ("The Brook's Lullaby") form the sad epilogue to Die schöne Müllerin. The young miller, heartbroken, can find no solace in life and so submits to the watery call that has coursed throughout the entire cycle: Ah, below, down below, is cool rest! Brook, beloved brook, sing on. The stream, finally answering his plea, accepts him into a watery grave and promises comfort in his eternal repose: Rest well, rest well! Close your eyes! ...Sleep away your joy, sleep away your sorrow!