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Müller, Wilhelm (1794-1827)

Wilhelm Müller

born: 7 October 1794
died: 30 September 1827
country: Germany

Wilhelm Müller, nicknamed ‘Griechen-Müller’ (‘Greek Müller’) because of his interest in the Greek political cause, was born on 7 October 1794 in Dessau. He was the son of a shoemaker, the only child of six to survive. From the age of eighteen he studied philology and history in Berlin. In February 1813 he volunteered for the Prussian army and fought in the battles against Napoleon at Lützen, Bautzen, Hanau and Kulm. After visits to cities as far apart as Prague and Brussels he returned to Dessau and resumed his university studies in 1815. On 18 October of that year he wrote a famous diary entry which makes us regret that Schubert and the poet were never to meet: ‘I can neither play nor sing, yet when I write verses I sing and play after all. If I could produce the tunes, my songs would please better than they do now. But courage! A kindred spirit may be found who will hear the tunes behind the words and give them back to me.’ As Alec Robertson has written: ‘They were, indeed, given back to him in undreamt-of measure.’

In actual fact Müller was probably referring to someone he had met already, the composer Ludwig Berger (1777–1829) who was a (slightly older) member of the poet’s circle of Berlin friends. This group of lively young minds, which gathered at the home of Friedrich von Stägemann, included such important personalities as Achim von Arnim and Wilhelm Hensel. The Liederspiel games, half poetry and half music, with which these creative young people entertained themselves formed the basis of the work which eventually became Die schöne Müllerin.

Müller’s exceptionally personable nature was always at its best in merry company, and he had a gift for friendship. Contacts with literary luminaries such as Tiedge, Brentano and Fouqué led to the inclusion of his work in the anthology Bundesblüthen in 1816. Soon afterwards he set off with Baron Sack on a visit to Egypt which included a stop in Constantinople (where the poet was lucky to escape infection from the plague) and finished up in Italy (1817) where he visited Naples and dallied in Rome. An eventual result of this visit was the publication of Rom, Römer und Römerinnen (1820), an engaging description of everyday life and literature in the Italy of that time. Müller seems to have had a great gift for languages and was a distinguished translator from English, notably of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. (It would not have escaped Müller’s notice that Marlowe, too, was the son of a shoemaker.) On his return to Dessau in 1819, Müller taught Latin and Greek in the local Gymnasium and was soon appointed Librarian to the Hofbibliothek by the reigning duke. In 1821 he married Adelheid Basedow who was a granddaughter of Johann Basedow, the celebrated educational reformer and pioneer of modern teaching methods. This marriage produced a son worthy of both his father and maternal grandfather: Max Müller (1823–1900), a great teacher, orientalist, philologist and linguist who was eventually to live in England where he became one of Oxford’s most famous academics.

Wilhelm Müller is chiefly remembered today (outside his musical connections that is) as the poet of Greece’s struggle for emancipation from the Turks. (The links with Byron are obvious, and both poets number a Maid of Athens among their lyrics.) Lieder der Griechen dates from 1821, and this was followed by Neue Lieder der Griechen (1823) and Neueste Lieder der Griechen (1824). This progression of ‘new’ and ‘newest’ songs ended with Missolunghi (1826). These poems reflect Müller’s own folksy and down-to-earth enthusiasm for Greek life. This was very different from the lofty Philhellenism widespread in this period. The poetry of Anacreon with its earthy hymning of wine, women and song was much to his taste, and his frank and open nature could not have been more different from that of aesthetes like Platen who saw in ancient Greek life a mirror and justification of their own forbidden sexual leanings. Müller was no respecter of great reputations and he seems to have been blind to the beauties of neoclassical Goethe; neither would he have enjoyed the classically inspired poems of Mayrhofer. However, these two among Schubert’s poets shared liberal sympathies common to the generation which had fought against the yoke of Napoleon. Like Mayrhofer, Müller did not always please the reactionary politicians terrified of revolution nurtured by students and intellectuals, and he was subject to his share of censorship – much less stringent of course than if he had been, like Schubert’s friend Johann Senn, an inhabitant of Vienna. His overwhelming interest in folk poetry via the Greeks played an important part in developing his taste for a German folk style which influenced many of his followers, Heinrich Heine chief among them. Today, and particularly to the lieder enthusiast, Müller’s poetry seems complementary to that of Josef von Eichendorff (1788–1857). Both fought in the Wars of Liberation against France, and both shared an interest in popular songs and the cult of the wandering lad – the Wanderbursch. In this way the minstrel of the Middle Ages was revived in popular fiction (cf. Müller’s Blumenlese aus den Minnesingern from 1816). Both poets were fond of travel, and they had an affection for Italy in common. They also both delighted in placing their narrators in the guise of soldier, student, sailor, huntsman, shepherd or fisherman. In the end it is the background and culture of the two men which differentiates them: Eichendorff the Roman Catholic from Silesia, Müller the Protestant from Dessau. The former was overtly religious in a number of his poems; the latter seldom talked about his faith – indeed Müller presents his winter traveller as a non-believer. Not all musicians found in his work the dark overtones unveiled by Schubert. Müller’s poetry was set a great many times by lesser composers, and the singability of his verse encouraged music written for cheery and hearty sing-songs rather than the more refined world of art-song in the salon. On 15 December 1822 he wrote a letter congratulating the composer Bernhard Klein (1793–1832) on ‘the musical animation of my verses’. Klein had set a number of the poems from Die schöne Müllerin. Müller continued: ‘My songs lead but half a life, a paper life of black and white … until music breathes life into them, or at least calls it forth and awakens it if it is already dormant in them.’ This concern with collaboration with a musician is amply illustrated by the final lines of Winterreise: the traveller–poet encounters a hurdy-gurdy player and wonders whether it is his destiny to work as part of a song-writing team. It is probably true to say that Müller, who knew nothing of Schubert’s music, would have been entranced by much of the composer’s Die schöne Müllerin – though, like Schubert’s friends, he might have been bewildered by some of Winterreise.

Although the poet was a slightly suspect liberal, his sheer likeability and good-heartedness won over the Dessau establishment. In 1824, shortly after his son’s birth, Müller was named a Hofrat at the early age of twenty-seven. He was a tireless contributor to a number of almanacs and yearbooks, both as a poet and a critic. These included the 1822 edition of Urania where, in the second and fourth of the Sechs Ländliche Lieder, Schubert found most of the text for Der Hirt am Felsen in 1828. The 1823 edition of the same almanac included the texts of the first twelve songs of Winterreise. In 1822 Müller had edited an important survey of seventeenth-century German poetry in ten volumes, and in 1821 and 1824 appeared the books (two volumes issued separately) by which all music-lovers remember him: Sieben-und-siebzig Gedichte aus den hinterlassenen Papieren eines reisenden Waldhornisten. This anthology, fancifully purporting to be the posthumous papers of a travelling horn-player, included the texts of both Schubert cycles: Die schöne Müllerin appears in the first volume, and the second contained Die Winterreise (note that Schubert dropped the definite article from the title) in its full twenty-four-poem version. In 1826 the poet broadened his scholarly activities and became involved in the Encyclopädie of Ersch and Gruber. In the last year of his life he went on a journey to south-west Germany where he met with his Swabian friends Schwabb, Hauff and Uhland. He also visited Justinus Kerner, known to lovers of lieder through the songs of Schumann. In Müller’s honour Kerner hung a Greek flag (a black cross painted on a bright blue-and-white background) from an old tower outside his house. During the night a rainstorm and autumn mists washed away the blue background leaving on the flag only an ominous black cross – the so-called Leichenfahn, or symbol of death in the house. This was a portent, celebrated in a poem by Kerner, which was worthy of the protagonist of Winterreise. On 1 October 1827, a few days after returning home from his visit to Kerner, Wilhelm Müller died of a stroke. He was only thirty-three years of age.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997


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