Ian Bostridge on Schubert’s Hidden Depths


I initially learnt more about the 20 tunes of Franz Schuberts “Die Schöne Müllerin” (“The Beautiful Miller Girl”) as an impressionable teenager, some 40 years ago.It may seem at very first sight and hearing to be quite a teenage story. Boy goes traveling for work, falls for woman, consumes about her because oh-so-teenage way; she remains heartlessly indifferent. Along comes a butch hunter to steal the maidens heart, and the young guys dream liquifies into jealousy, anger and tears. He kills himself in the mill stream that led him to the woman 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 wonderfully sung and played, this is a variation that any impressionable listener might fall for. What struck me most at the time was the unlimited discussion between voice and young boy, brook and piano, and Schuberts unerring ability to transform textually inspired themes– running water, heavy millstones, the strum of a guitar– into evocative music. This is not vocalist and accompaniment; it is chamber music for voice and piano.The LP cover made an informing influence on my understanding of the music. Corots “Mill at Saint-Nicolas-les-Arras” is a painting from the very end of the artists profession, in the 1870s; most likely painted “en plein air,” it provides a picture of idyllic rusticity which is definitely also part of the appeal of Schuberts cycle, written in 1823. We imagine the miller kid looking from behind Corots screen of trees, longing to belong.There is undoubtedly a naïve and untroubled method of approaching the cycle, whether as pianist, listener or singer– akin to the naïve and untroubled air with which our hero sets out on his walking. “Das Wandern ist des Müllers Lust,” the text goes: “To roam is the millers delight.” The music is tuneful, frequently with a modest air. Numerous, if not most, of the songs are strophic, with the same music repeated three, 4 or 5 times for different verses.The poems that Schubert set were originally written as part of a parlor game in which a group of well-heeled buddies in Berlin informed the tale of Rose, the miller maid, in verse, from the point of view of different characters. The poetic cycle released in 1820 by one of these friends, coincidentally called Wilhelm Müller, stripped the story down to essentially four characters and viewpoints: the young boy, the mill, the narrator and the girl stream itself. While doing this, Müller kept something of the party-game quality, so that even if the story ends tragically, with the kids suicide, the text preserves a kind of distance.Müllers note listed below the works title– “to be checked out in the winter season”– presents some darker ambiguity. The poems are to be checked out in the cold months because they embody precisely the sort of artless pastoral that is valuable to pass the time when people are locked down in winter season. They are more than a frolic, looking forward to spring; they form a mental journey which, regardless of its spirited origins and ironic function playing, is worthy to set next to this poets brooding masterpiece, “Winterreise” (“Winters Journey”), put to music by Schubert a few years later.Schubert eliminated every trace of irony from Müllers “Müllerin” original. He ditched some teasing framing poems in the voice of the poet, virtually eliminated the presence of the miller woman herself and focused on the psychological disintegration of the boy. The outcome can be read in lots of methods: a representation of the failure to grow up and welcome adult sexuality; a study in masochism; a journey toward romantic oblivion. This kid never really notices that the girl doesnt discover 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 defines him? Due to the fact that, just as with the outsider wanderer of “Winterreise,” he, his narcissism and his fixation become part of all of us. Schuberts music deepens and ennobles him, and when, at the end of this hourlong odyssey, the mill stream itself sings the boys threnody as lullaby, the cosmic gesture of the parting words and music– “und der Himmel da oben, wie ist er so weit” (“and paradise above, how huge it is”)– doesnt seem overblown.Surely part of the weight of the cycle originates from the circumstances of its structure. Schubert had simply been diagnosed with syphilis, and some of the tunes were probably made up in the healthcare facility. The association between libido– however prettified in these pieces– and death is part of the overarching metaphor of the cycle, which association should have been more than clear to the author as he wrote.To contribute to the ancient fixations of sex and death, class is also embedded in the “Müllerin” cycle. This theme would have had its own appeal to Schubert, painfully conscious as he was of the precarious social position of the independent composer. The hero of the cycle has, in result, fallen in love with the bosss child. His dream of comfortable domesticity is pricked by a hunter, representative not simply of bruising masculinity but also of social liberty and independence.Social relations make complex things in the cycle, however so does our sense as listeners that this is a world on the edge of dissolution. Müller and Schuberts mill– like Corots– is equipment, both product and ideological, that will be cast out by the forward march of industrialization. As Marx really almost said, “The water mill provides 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 historic injury to which a near-contemporary of Schuberts, 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 Schuberts birth.With all these psychological and historical phenomena to feed our analyses as listeners and performers, it is no surprise that “Die Schöne Müllerin” continues to exert an unusual fascination. Ive been singing it for 40 or two years, as an apprentice and an ambitious master, and it is inexhaustible.Exhausting, too, if I can let you in on a trade trick from the guild of lieder vocalists. A fair bit shorter than its mammoth follower, “Winterreise”– which has 24 songs and lasts 75 minutes, compared to 20 and an hour for “Müllerin”– it is nonetheless quite something to keep its ruthless tessitura and preserve that sense of the art which conceals art.My very first recording of the “Müllerin,” released in 1996, introduced my career as a song recitalist. It occurred providentially. Another vocalist had dropped out of this particular volume of Graham Johnsons amazing total edition of Schubert tunes on Hyperion, and I stepped into the breach. The poems Schubert didnt set were read by my hero, the fabled Fischer-Dieskau. It wasnt the simplest of sessions: As we recorded the last tune, fireworks started going off next door and we needed to piece it together in pieces. Graham played splendidly, but we disagreed extremely about the pace of the very first song. His slower instinct was most likely right– its how I sing it now– however at the time, he yielded. I gave the piece a really naïve reading which, going back to the entire company of record covers, was shown in the photo on the CD: myself as unpopular youngster, checking out a book in a barn.Much of the rest of my career as a lieder singer has actually been an effort to leave from that naïveté and to show the deeper waters of pieces like the “Müllerin.” Thats been frustrating for some people who choose limpid appeal to psychological torment. In my most current recording, with the dazzling Italian pianist Saskia Giorgini, a veteran of the solo collection whose perspective on Schubert is inflected by her immersion in Liszt and Enescu, I intend to reach some sort of lodging between the naïve and the emotional, the mellifluously uncomplicated and the anxiety-ridden hall of mirrors. The journey to do justice to the millers journey is an endless one.Ian Bostridge is the author of “Schuberts Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession.” His brand-new recording of “Die Schöne Müllerin” will be released on Friday on Pentatone.

I initially got to know the 20 tunes of Franz Schuberts “Die Schöne Müllerin” (“The Beautiful Miller Girl”) as an impressionable teen, some 40 years ago.It may appear at first sight and hearing to be really much a teenage story. Corots “Mill at Saint-Nicolas-les-Arras” is a painting from the very end of the artists career, in the 1870s; probably painted “en plein air,” it presents an image of idyllic rusticity which is surely also part of the appeal of Schuberts cycle, composed in 1823. Schuberts music deepens and ennobles him, and when, at the end of this hourlong odyssey, the mill stream itself sings the young boys threnody as lullaby, the cosmic gesture of the parting words and music– “und der Himmel da oben, wie ist er so weit” (“and paradise above, how huge it is”)– does not seem overblown.Surely part of the weight of the cycle comes from the scenarios of its structure. Müller and Schuberts mill– like Corots– is machinery, both material and ideological, that will be cast out by the forward march of industrialization.”The loss of the water mill as a center of common food production was a historic injury to which a near-contemporary of Schuberts, William Blake, responded with visionary force, decrying the advance of the “dark hellish mills”– steam-driven ones like the Albion Flour Mills in London, which burned down to basic rejoicing previously in the decade of Schuberts birth.With all these mental and historical phenomena to feed our analyses as listeners and entertainers, it is no wonder that “Die Schöne Müllerin” continues to apply an unusual fascination.


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