Music history textbooks love to point out that Schubert’s song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin (The Pretty Miller Girl) uses poetry by Wilhelm Müller, the same poet who supplied the text for Schubert’s Winterreise. Then they go on to inform you that the Winterreise poetry is “more sophisticated,” as if that automatically makes it superior. Some recent recordings of Müllerin demonstrate how the “less sophisticated” song cycle has an entirely different purpose and is a masterwork in its own way.
Müllerin dates from 1823, five years before Winterreise, published the same year Schubert died at the age of 31. Unlike the later work, which is a series of vignettes encapsulating emotions, Müllerin tells a story through its series of 20 poems: A young man follows a brook to a mill, falls in love with the miller’s daughter, despairs when she rejects his advances, and drowns himself in the brook. Besides the fact that the songs carry a plot, they also represent the point of view of an uneducated laborer. Of course the poetic diction and musical settings are quite different from the metaphysical Winterreise.
Before we get started, here’s a handy translation of the entire Die Schöne Müllerin.
In his 2017 recording of Die Schöne Müllerin on Capriccio, Danish baritone Bo Skovhus emphasizes the changing temperament of the main character as the young man goes from carefree wanderer in the first song, “Das Wandern” (Wandering), to hopeless victim of unrequited love in the final number, “Des Baches Wiegenlied” (The Brook’s Lullaby). Skovhus’ performance is all about acting with the voice; if you compare those first and last songs, they could be different singers.
His husky, sometimes wobbly voice takes some getting used to. It’s not the big, fat Thomas Hampson sound that has come to stand for “correct” operatic baritone. But if you take expressioninto account, this is a collection worth listening to. I also think the folk-like style of the poetry and music are carried well by a not-quite-standard voice, one that’s a bit rough at the edges.
Here is that opening song, “Das Wandern.” Pianist Stefan Vladar’s energetic playing – almost uncontrolled in its forward propulsion – perfectly embodies the programmatic meaning of Schubert’s accompaniment: Each of the strophic verses describes some type of constant motion as a metaphor for wandering, from the grinding of a mill wheel to the flowing water that turns it.
Although no other tracks are available on YouTube, there is a live version of Skovhus and Vladar doing “Wohin” (Where to?), the cycle’s second song. Although Skovhus’ noisy breathing is distracting at first, try to concentrate on how he crafts phrases, with attention to the smallest poetic detail and musical idea:
You can listen to the entire album on Spotify:
Another 2017 release, this one on Sony, offers the Müllerin cycle again performed by baritone and piano. Christian Gerhaher is a German singer with a sweet and multicolored voice and a wholly original approach to this music.
In the sixth song, “Der Neugirige” (The Questioner), Gerhaher treats the first two stanzas as an introduction. Fair enough, considering their music differs somewhat from what follows, buGerhaher overemphasizes this by singing the opening stanzas with halting rubato. I found it distracting. But when he sweeps into the delicate main melody at stanza 3, all is forgiven. (Oh, Schubert, how do you do it?) At the piano, Gerold Huber matches his playing perfectly to Gerhaher’s idiosyncratic interpretation.
From a compositional standpoint, the greatest song in Müllerin may be “Die liebe Farbe” (The Beloved Color). Schubert vacillates between major and minor to mimic the ironic twists in the poetry. The youth knows the miller girl loves green, so he resolves to seek out a cypress grove (cypresses represent death) and have his grave there covered in green grass. Schubert ties together the two conflicting modes by the constant, repeated fifth degree of the scale in the piano. Gerhaher and Huber play this one at funereal tempo, slower than normal, but it works to emphasize the poem’s darker side.
Their recording of the final song, “Des Baches Wiegenlied,” is a model of understatement. Gerhaher, as if understanding how deep depression crushes the spirit, sings almost without feeling, letting his sound get swallowed into the piano’s lines. His character is beyond sadness at this point, as he says goodbye to the world.
Baritone and piano are currently the favored combination for performing Müllerin, but both the vocal range and the accompanying instruments are variables. One particularly beautiful recording from 1992 (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi) – in danger of being lost to the ages until the internet resurrected it – is by tenor Christoph Prégardien with Andreas Staier on fortepiano.
The higher voice brings an innocence to the story that makes a lot of dramatic sense. The boy is a fool who falls so hard because he’s so naïve. As for using the earlier instrument: The modern pianoforte had been invented by 1823, but fortepianos were still more common. And the fast decay of sound in the all-wooden frame (as opposed to the reverberation of tones in a metal frame and using a sustain pedal) gives the more folkish, strophic songs an appropriate simplicity.
The album is available on a single Youtube video. Start at 21:09 to hear “Des Müllers Blumen” (The Miller’s Flowers), a good example of the more innocent sound of tenor and fortepiano and a track that really shows off Prégardien’s sparkling voice:
If you prefer, you can hear the whole thing on Spotify:
I would be remiss not to mention an interesting experiment that just came out on VerdeFish Records. A quartet of musicians called The Erlkings define themselves as “the world’s newest genre defying Schubert ensemble.” Their 2018 Die Schöne Müllerin is based on the concept that Schubert was the pop music of his day, and thus he should be pop music in ours.
Well, hipster folk-pop, anyway. They’re not going for Top 40, and it’s entirely acoustic, with guitar, cello, brass (natural trumpet, tuba, etc.), and a snare drum fitted with a desk call bell. Much as I cherish Schubert’s original, I don’t hate the sound the Erlkings produce, and I believe they are skilled musicians who love this music. My biggest objection is that they treat this suicide tale with a level of humor that misrepresents the romantic poetry’s natural angst. Here is “Der Jäger,” sung in English:
If you dare, listen to the whole thing on Spotify: