A song cycle as self-portrait
In the autumn of 1823, when the illness that five years later would take his life revealed its full intensity, Schubert composed Die schöne Müllerin, on texts by the German poet Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827). Central in this cycle of 20 lieder is a wandering miller’s helper who very briefly holds the illusion that he has found happiness. His beloved, however, a beautiful miller’s daughter, turns her attention to a handsome hunter, and the disappointed miller’s helper drowns himself in a stream.
Also in 1823, Müller published the first 12 poems of a new cycle, Winterreise, in which he again presents a young man who has left his hearth and home. This time, the protagonist is not searching for happiness, but fleeing after misfortune in love. The second series of 12 poems would appear a short time later, and in 1827, the year before his death, Schubert set this cycle to music, incidentally following the order in which it appeared – in February, he wrote the first 12 lieder and it was only in October that he got to the second half.
Thematically, Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise are in full keeping with the Romantic movement that was bursting forth everywhere, a growing uneasiness with social and economic developments leading to among other things the glorification of wandering and a return to nature, both as a counterbalance to disillusionment with reality. While the first cycle initially exudes hope and joie de vivre, Winterreise is from the beginning dominated by fatalism and a longing for death. One of the most popular lieder in the cycle, Der Lindenbaum, seems nothing less than the call of suicide, through which the cycle links with the end of Die schöne Müllerin, where the miller’s helper is drawn to the water in the stream.
In part due to arrangements for the theatre and film, a tendency arose to see the Winterreise cycle as a monodrama about a rejected lover who wanders out of sorrow. The foundation of this is the first lied, Gute Nacht, in which we hear that in the month of May, love still smiled upon the poet, but then all his dreams were smashed and he decided to roam the world. We are not told what exactly had happened; nowhere in the cycle do we hear a reproof or an indication of “guilt”, not even from the protagonist. He tells us only that he withdraws from the vicinity of his former beloved because he expects he would otherwise be hunted by dogs.