Ross Hayes translates the story behind Schubert’s song cycle

As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Die schöne Müllerin, the collaboration between the poet Wilhelm Müller and composer Franz Schubert, we should recognize that every German schoolboy knows the enchanted opening line by heart: ‘Das Wandern ist des Müllers Lust!’ (Roving is the miller’s delight!).

But it’s not the only reason for the familiarity. The line was reinforced by the 1844 composition of the Leipzig music teacher Carl Friedrich Zöllner who set Müller’s text to music as a four-part choral setting for male chorus, which became one of the best-known German-language hiking and folk songs.

Schubert’s song cycle embodies the feelings of the young-at-heart, and those feelings clearly had a deep impact on both the poet and the composer.

The Schöne Müllerin poems had appeared in 1821 among a collection entitled Seventy-seven poems from the posthumous papers of a travelling horn-player. Having crafted the words of this cycle, Wilhelm Müller showed his unfulfillment when he said: ‘Indeed, my songs lead only half a life, a paper life of black and white… until music breathes life into them, or at least calls it forth and awakens such as is already dormant in them.’ He went on to say: ‘If I could produce the tunes, my songs would please better than they do now. But courage! A kindred soul may be found who will hear the tunes behind the words and give them back to me’.

Well, that kindred soul was the Austrian composer Franz Schubert, who for the previous 12 years had put music to words with unprecedented skill. As with many of the poems previously used by Schubert, he was selective in their adoption. In the Schöne Müllerin case, Schubert discarded the Prologue and Epilogue as well as three poems because they were repetitive, too long, or diminished the drama.

The young miller’s angst was a mirror image of his own harassed soul – he had been singularly unsuccessful in love, and his medical condition at the time of composing was a direct result of his misguided endeavours to gain experience in this area.

There are three (or possibly four) characters in the drama of Die schöne Müllerin: the young peripatetic miller, the Schöne Müllerin (the beautiful daughter of the mill owner), and the Jäger (the hunter). The possible fourth? Well, as unlikely as it may seem, it’s the Bach (the stream) which brings the other characters together and motivates, and ultimately resolves, the drama. Additionally, in the nineteenth song, Der Müller und der Bach, the stream actually has a voice.

While the poetry obviously works best in the German language and for optimal impact an understanding of German is vital, we can appreciate the language flow, the music, and certainly, the imagery. In fact, colour plays a very important part in the imagery: white (Weiß) for the young miller covered in flour; and green (Grün) for the hunter and the forest.

As the ‘relationship’, if you could call the young miller’s unspoken longing that, turns sour with the Schöne Müllerin expressing interest in the hunter, all he can see is green: in Song No.12, Pause, there’s the green ribbon around his now silent lute; in Song No. 16, Die liebe Farbe (the dear colour), the young miller sees himself cloaked in green, even covered in green in his grave; and in Song No. 17, Die böse Farbe (the hateful colour), the young miller sees green everywhere.

It’s been 200 years since the coalition of Müller’s words and Schubert’s music fulfilled Müller’s wish, but still, we can appreciate the combined artistry that should live for another 200 years.

This article appears in the September Issue of the 2MBS Fine Music Sydney Magazine.