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17.1.11

Graham Johnson's 'Schöne Müllerin'

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Read my review published today in the Style section of the Washington Post:

Charles T. Downey, Pianist adds his own poetry to Schubert's "Schone Mullerin"
Washington Post, January 17, 2011

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Schubert, Die Schöne Müllerin, I. Bostridge, D. Fischer-Dieskau (reciting poetry), G. Johnson
Vocal Arts D.C. presented Robin Tritschler and Graham Johnson in a recital at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Saturday night. While the song cycle on the program, Schubert's "Die Schone Mullerin," was a familiar one, nothing about Johnson's poetic piano playing or his equally poetic pre-performance lecture was anything but singular.

The cycle is about an introverted, possibly disturbed young man, a miller, and the river that loves him, finally embracing him in a watery death. Along the way, the eponymous beautiful miller maid is a tragic distraction: While the young man falls in love with the maid, he mostly speaks with the faithful brook, and it with him. This was not necessarily the story that the author of the verses, Wilhelm Muller, meant to tell: In one of the five poems that Schubert excised from the cycle when he set it to music, Muller states quite plainly that, "though the brook speaks at the end,/That still does not make a brook a character." Schubert, whose piano part incarnates the singing brook throughout the cycle, had other ideas. [Continue reading]
Schubert, Die Schöne Müllerin
Robin Tritschler (tenor) and Graham Johnson (piano)
Vocal Arts D.C.
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

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Schubert, Die Schöne Müllerin, I. Bostridge, M. Uchida


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S. Youens, Schubert, Müller, and Die schöne Müllerin (2006)
Here are a few more ideas about Die schöne Müllerin that did not make it into the review. In this lecture Graham Johnson reworked some of the themes from the liner notes (.PDF file) for his seminal recording of Die schöne Müllerin with tenor Ian Bostridge (the recording linked above, which is the closest to the performance heard on Saturday night, although Bostridge's recording with Mitsuko Uchida has received higher marks from Ionarts). The songs were originally published in higher keys, making the cycle natural territory for tenors (or sopranos, although that is fairly rare), and Bostridge's voice, of which Robin Tritschler's was a less satisfying reflection, suits this cycle perfectly. Johnson said quite a lot about the genesis of the cycle, which began as a collaborative project among poets gathered together by Friedrich August von Stägemann, a Liederspiel, or collection of co-written poems, to be set as songs, that collectively told a story.

As Johnson himself acknowledged, the recent book by musicologist Susan Youens, building upon her earlier studies of the cycle, brings together all of this information in an authoritative and exhaustively documented way. Müller took the poems he had written for the Liederspiel and added others, creating a poetic cycle that he called Die schöne Müllerin: Im Winter zu lesen. When Schubert set the poetry in his song cycle (see these scores), he cut Müller's prologue and epilogue, as well as three other poems -- Das Mühlenleben (in which the miller girl is characterized more fully), Erster Schmerz, letzter Scherz, and Blümlein Vergißmein -- see this comparison (.PDF file) of Müller's collection and Schubert's song cycle. These changes sideline the mill-girl, making the narrator's involvement with her seem more delusional and augmenting the influence of the river, with Schubert's piano part incarnating these watery voices, sometimes menacing and other times comforting, in the young man's head.

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