The beautiful miller’s daughter – beautifully adorned?
The song cycle Die schöne Müllerin is Schubert’s first complete large-scale song cycle. It had been preceded by smaller cycles, for example the ‘Harfnerlieder’ from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister (1816) and Die Abendröte, on texts by Friedrich Schlegel (1819-23), a larger cycle that had remained incomplete (Schubert had only a few Lieder from this cycle published). These cycles lacked any narrative thread, so that the composer must have been lacking the epic momentum that would bind the single songs together. In this respect Wilhelm Müller’s Lieder suited the composer very well. The poems originated in a ‘Liederspiel’ (a play with songs) performed in the winter of 1816-17 among an intimate circle of friends in Berlin, to which, apart from the poet himself and his composer of that time Ludwig Berger, the painter Wilhelm Hensel belonged. (Hensel later married Mendelssohn’s sister.) In the years 1818-20 the poet extended and reworked his cycle, and he published it in 1821 in a collection of small volumes of poetry with the title ‘Sieben und siebzig Gedichte aus den hinterlassenen Papieren eines reisenden Waldhornisten’ (Seventy-Seven Poems from the Posthu- mous Papers of a Wayfaring Horn Player).
A ‘Liederspiel’ of this kind, in other words a series of poems that one could also present in performance, was what the composer was looking for. He set it to music in a year in which he was seriously ill: it appears that in October 1823, when he was starting work
on the songs, he was a patient in the Vienna general hospital. At the same time, however, he had also largely overcome an artistic crisis during which he had, over the course of some years, been searching for new paths. On 30 November 1823 Schubert wrote to his close friend Franz von Schober: “Since the opera [Fierabras] I have composed nothing except a few Müllerlieder. The Müllerlieder will appear in four volumes, with vignettes by Schwind. – For the rest, I hope to regain my good health, and this new-found benefit will help me forget all my suffering [...]”. These few lines are revealing: they show the close association between compositional work, illness and hope for healing, and that the expression “a few Müllerlieder” is not to be taken seriously, but rather as a topos of affected modesty. For Schubert was al- ready, while at work on the composition, thinking about the print layout: he had in mind a presentable edition with vignettes by his very close friend the artist Moritz von Schwind. This was to be something new and extraordinary: a large-scale song cycle. (As things turned out, the volumes appeared in a relatively modest format, without the vignettes, and in five instead of four volumes.)