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Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Die schöne Müllerin

Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Joseph Middleton (piano)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: June 2020
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Mellor
Engineered by Andrew Mellor
Release date: January 2022
Total duration: 64 minutes 10 seconds

Cover artwork: Stokesley Mill Wheel, North Yorkshire.
Photo © James Beddoe

Iestyn Davies and Joseph Middleton perform Schubert's most intense song cycle in a recording curated by St John's College Cambridge—where Davies began his illustrious singing career at the age of seven.

Franz Schubert was newly diagnosed with syphilis when he discovered a poetic cycle by a contemporary of his, the poet Wilhelm Müller, who tells the tale of a young lad done to death by his first erotic experience. That the composer was drawn to a story about the coupling of Eros and Death at this turning point in his own life is a coincidence to make anyone ponder the mysteries of time and fate. The characters in this narrative cycle in 20 stages are medieval in origin—many listeners will know them in comic guise from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales—but here they are mythic archetypes for something fundamental in human existence. Few of us make the journey from cradle to grave without being clawed by love’s very sharp talons at some point, and Schubert’s cycle traverses a tragic arc from Songs of Innocence to Songs of Experience.

In the late autumn of 1816, the 23-year-old poet Wilhelm Müller took part in a weekly artistic salon at the home of the Berlin privy councillor Friedrich August von Stägemann. The other members of the group included the 22-year-old artist Wilhelm Hensel, who would later marry Fanny Mendelssohn; his 18-year-old sister Luise Hensel; Friedrich Förster, who would become an eminent historian; and the 16-year-old daughter of the household, Hedwig von Stägemann. The young people embarked on the composition of a Liederspiel (song-play) on the venerable theme of the miller maid (Hedwig) wooed by a variety of suitors: a gardener (Luise Hensel in a "pants-role"), a hunter (Wilhelm Hensel), Müller (predestined by his name to be the miller lad), and a Junker, or country squire (Förster). The antique tale was 'in the air' at the time: Giovanni Paisiello's comic opera L'amor contrastato, o sia La bella Molinara of 1788 was popular in Germany as Die schöne Müllerin; Goethe had written four mill-ballads in different national styles; and Romantic writers followed suit. Only fragments of the Stägemann Liederspiel are extant, but from them, we learn that it ended with the miller maid, overcome by remorse, drowning herself in the same brook in which the miller lad died. The young Müller, the best poet in the group of young people, was in love with Luise Hensel, but she was being strenuously courted by the older Romantic poet Clemens Brentano (she never married, however). In a traditional remedy for a broken heart, Müller left Berlin in 1817 for journeys to Austria and Italy, where he became a philhellene, or supporter of Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire and one of Lord Byron's earliest German biographers. Returning to his native Dessau in 1818, Müller began revising the Liederspiel as a monodrama, a poetic cycle spoken or sung by a single character. Everyone we meet, everything we see, everything we know comes from him, or so goes Müller’s feint. He was proud of the finished work, as well he might be, and gave it pride of place in his first poetic anthology: 77 Poems from the Posthumous Papers of a Wandering Horn-player. The title is a mocking 'send-up' of as many Romantic clichés as Müller could cram into a single line (magic numbers, death, wandering, the Waldhorn or natural horn as the Romantic instrument par excellence), and it tells us that Müller was a latecomer to Romanticism. The parenthetical subtitle of the poetic cycle, 'To be read in winter', bespeaks someone looking back in wintry disillusionment at the springtime of Romantic ideals.

Literary critics used to decry Müller’s poetry as naïve, but in actuality these poems overflow with literary references, their university-educated creator trafficking in allusions to Goethe, Elizabethan poetry, medieval romance, and folk poetry. 'Ungeduld' ('Impatience'), for example, is modeled on a passage from Sir Edmund Spenser’s 'Colin Clouts come home again' of 1595. In another example, the framing prologue and epilogue of Die schöne Müllerin—Schubert omitted them from his cycle—are drenched in Pirandello-esque irony. Both are in the voice of 'The Poet', a combination-carnival huckster and egotistical artist who derides his chosen subject matter as rustic but congratulates himself on his skill in making something new out of these 'country matters'.

The three main characters in Die schöne Müllerin have a long literary ancestry beginning in the Middle Ages and extending all the way to World War I. In German folklore, hunters are fearless, independent, at home in Nature, disdainful of civilization, and possessed of irresistible sexual magnetism. They have the advantage in the ages-old chasse d'amour, or 'hunt of love', and shy, poetically-inclined miller lads can hardly compete with so much masculinity mantled in so much myth. But the myths of handsome, seductive hunters also have a dark side in violence. In 'Der Jäger', Müller even calls up associations with German legends of 'der wilde Mann' ('the wild man') when his miller lad angrily cries out to a hunter who is not even there (the lad talks to himself): 'And shave the bristling hair from your chin.' The stricken youth can hardly believe that the sweetheart he thinks is so saintly could reciprocate the desires of an uncivilized macho man when she could have a sweet, tender poet who worships her.

For those who had read the right books, however, it was easy to believe, as mills were the traditional site for carnality; Chaucer created the most famous example of sexual conniving at the medieval mill in the Reeve's Tale from his Canterbury Tales. Some of Germany’s oldest folk poems also tell of lusty miller maids and shy young apprentices who yearn for their favors, but Müller’s lad has read all the wrong books. He is a figure transposed from the medieval poetry of courtly love to a rustic context; Müller translated a collection of Minnesong poetry from Middle High German into modern German in 1816, just before the Stägemann song-play. The courtly lover controls lust by desiring a lady who is seen as too wonderful for the dross of sexuality; what the knight-poet does with bodily desire is to sing of it in verse stylized to the utmost. Following the chivalric model, the miller lad idealizes the miller maid as pure and perfect, and he sings songs to tell of her beauty and of his love for her. But not many women can survive this kind of exaltation, and few among us can spiritualize desire without a struggle. The result in this cycle is the classic virgin-whore dichotomy in which the beloved is first worshipped as the image of perfection and then excoriated as a slut when she proves to have a carnal side.

Müller was not the first to create young men destroyed by the difference between love on the printed page and love as it really is (which then becomes literature); Goethe’s Werther was only one of many such characters Müller might have known. In fact, his miller lad suffers more than Schubert’s. The composer omitted not only the prologue and epilogue but three poems from the body of the narrative, poems in which the miller lad 1) idealizes the maiden as a rustic saint, 2) spies on the hunter and miller maid making love, and 3) undergoes a harrowing surge of sexual revulsion that destroys him: this is why he kills himself. By eliminating these poems, Schubert allows us to infer that the lad’s love was possibly unrequited and that some passing kindness on her part permits him in 'Mein!' ('Mine!') to fantasize that she is his before the truth of her liaison with the hunter becomes something he cannot deny. His miller is more innocent than the poet’s.

The genesis of D795 marks the beginning of the end of Schubert's life. He discovered that he had contracted syphilis sometime in late 1822 or early 1823, and it was in 1823 that he composed this tale of a poet-singer who dies in the aftermath of erotic experience. 'Imagine a man whose health will never be right again … whose most brilliant hopes have perished … whom enthusiasm for all things beautiful threatens to forsake', Schubert wrote to a friend: this is the backdrop to Die schöne Müllerin. The initial stages of his illness were so severe that he had to be hospitalized, possibly in the summer of 1823. The cycle was published the following year (1824) in five booklets as Op 25 by the Viennese firm of Sauer & Leidesdorf. Schubert dedicated the first edition to his friend, the Baron Carl von Schönstein, who had, according to numerous reports, a lyrical high baritone voice; Franz Liszt was moved to tears when he heard Schönstein sing in 1838, ten years after Schubert’s death. We are told that in his later years, the aristocratic singer would receive mail addressed only to 'Baron von Schönstein, Journeyman Miller'; the tale may be apocryphal but one hopes it is true.

For reasons about which we can only conjecture, Die schöne Müllerin did not immediately strike the public fancy, and there were no reviews in Schubert's lifetime. His friend Franz Schober tried to comfort him, writing: 'And your miller songs have also brought no great acclaim? These hounds have no feelings or minds of their own, and they blindly follow the noise and opinions of others.' But the 'hounds' would soon atone for their initial neglect.

In this cycle, Schubert spans the gamut from the strict strophic, pseudo-folkloric sound of 'Das Wandern' ('Journeying') to the formal complexities of 'Eifersucht und Stolz' ('Jealousy and Pride') and 'Die böse Farbe' ('The hateful colour'), from the simpler harmonic language of 'Mit dem grünen Lautenbande' ('To accompany the lute’s green ribbon') to the radical harmonic language of 'Pause', from the hammered fury of 'Der Jäger' ('The Hunter') to the exquisite tenderness of the elegy at the end. The details of his reading of this poetry are too numerous to recount them all; a few examples will have to suffice. When the lad in 'Ungeduld' harps on the same tune over and over and stays in the same key, we hear his monomaniacal fervor; he cannot sit still, however, and his impatience is evident in the colorful inflections and thrumming triplets. Youthful ardor and impatience are again evident in 'Morgengruß' ('Morning Greeting'), a serenade that starts with a preliminary bit of rehearsal: the piano begins with a two-bar phrase to which the lad will subsequently sing, 'Guten Morgen, schöne Müllerin' ('Good morning, beautiful miller maid'). He is too impatient to rehearse beyond the first phrase, however, and quickly concludes the introduction so that he can utter his thoughts aloud. In 'Eifersucht und Stolz', when the lad tells the brook to convey his reproaches to the miller maid ('Geh', Bächlein, hin und sag ihr das', or 'Go, little brook, and tell her that'), the thought occurs to him so quickly that there is barely time for the singer to take a gasping breath before the imperative 'Geh'' ('Go'), sung as an upbeat. Schubert mimics the motions of a mind in turmoil and does so within a formal structure of impeccable design. Something similar happens in 'Die böse Farbe' ('The hateful colour'), when the miller says that he would like 'to make the green grass deathly pale [totenbleich] with my weeping'. In Schubert’s reading, the lad realizes a split second after he sings 'toten-' (deathly) that he is actually contemplating his own death. The shock sends him reeling and the music jolting upwards, a massive disruption of the harmonies. In a different context, '-bleich' ('pale') would not receive such emphasis, but Schubert makes us hear the moment of revelation when it happens. In 'Trockne Blumen' ('Withered Flowers'), the miller tries to convince himself that there is meaning in his death, that love will triumph in resurrection. In Müller’s poetic cycle, the delusion dies somewhere between this poem and the one that follows it ('Der Müller und der Bach'), but Schubert makes us hear false reassurance vanishing in the piano postlude to 'Trockne Blumen', the music sinking downwards and all vitality draining away. In every bar of every song, there are similar marvels to be found.

At the end, neither Müller nor Schubert allows tragedy to have the last word. In the final poem, the brook sings an exquisite lullaby to console the dying lad. It was the custom in 1820s Vienna for parish churches to ring the 'Zügenglöcklein', the 'passing bell', when one of their parishioners was dying so that all who heard it might pray for the person’s soul, and Schubert accordingly rings the passing bell in the outermost tones of the right-hand part. A majestic spiritual vision unfolds at the close, invoked by the brook that has been the lad’s confidante all along, in whose depths he lies dying. When it tells of the full moon rising into the heavens, dispelling the mist symbolic of all that evades our understanding in this life, it insists upon the ultimate victory of harmony and beauty in the realm of the infinite.

Susan Youens © 2022

Iestyn had already been in the choir for four years when I arrived at St John’s in 1991. Still only 11, he was already almost a veteran. He and his friend, Christopher de la Hoyde saw me through what could have been two very challenging years. Their voices can be heard on several recordings, notably of Gibbons Verse Anthems and a Purcell CD under the late Richard Hickox.

Iestyn, in particular, was a natural performer who exemplified many of the virtues of George Guest’s excellent choir—expressive quality, sensitive phrasing allied to the shape and sense of the text, judicious vibrato, and an ability to communicate. He sang with remarkable warmth and understanding for one so young. He made everything look and sound easy, but behind this was deeply serious intent. As Head Chorister he led by example with calm authority. I can picture him now, standing in the middle of his side, anticipating some exposed passage. He would seem to grow a couple of inches, and with a discreet restraining gesture would seem to imply ‘I’m doing this’.

Happily he and his friend returned to the choir in due course as choral scholars. During this time Iestyn’s voice gradually settled and he gained much from the teaching, support and friendship of David Lowe. Following a spell at the Royal Academy of Music, his career path became obvious and (unsurprisingly) took off in a spectacular way.

Anyone who has heard Iestyn make an after-dinner speech will be aware of his sharp wit and mischievous sense of humour. I gather that his many followers on social media are greatly entertained by his gift for mimicry. Like all good actors he has a keen eye and ear for the ridiculous and for the eccentricities of human behaviour. Like Alan Bennett, perhaps?

Christopher Robinson © 2022

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