Die Schöne Müllerin is the first of the three great song cycles written by Schubert. He completed it in the autumn of 1823, a year which also saw the completion of his opera Fierabras and the orchestral music for Rosamunde.
Die Schöne Müllerin consists of twenty songs which are narrated in the first person. The basic theme is of a young man who is a miller, and who goes on a journey. He sees a miller girl who he falls in love with, but another man goes off with her and he is left desolate. Rather simplistic stuff for one of the greatest song cycles ever written, but Schubert saw the potential of the poetry and proceeded with the music.
The poems are by Wilhelm Müller who was a gifted writer and poet from around the same period as Schubert. It is not clear whether the two men knew one another, but Schubert certainly obtained a copy of the anthology Poems from the Posthumous Papers of an Itinerant Horn-Player, published in Dessau in 1821. Müller's cycle of poems appears in this in a slightly longer form; Schubert decided not to set the prologue or epilogue, and also chose not to compose music for the three poems Das Mühlenleben, Erster Schmerz, Letzter Schertz and Blümlein Vergissmein which appear in Müller's original.
The songs of Die Schöne Müllerin are, of course, Lieder, the musical form in which Schubert was one of the greatest exponents. The piano and vocal parts are of equal importance and intertwine with each other. Schubert was also one of the first composers to set a whole cycle of lieder rather than just one at a time; previously he had set small groups together but this was the first large collection of poems he had written music for. He had previously received suggestions for poems to set but did not feel they were right for the purpose (Schubert Die Schöne Müllerin Cambridge University Press, Susan Youens 1992).
The poems are as follows:-
- Das Wandern
- Danksagung an den Bach
- Am Feierabend
- Der Neugierige
- Des Müllers Blumen
- Mit dem grünen Lautenbande
- Der Jäger
- Eifersucht und Stolz
- Die liebe Farbe
- Die böse Farbe
- Trockne Blumen
- Der Müller und der Bach
- Des Baches Wiegenlied
Die Schöne Müllerin is in German but most recordings come accompanied by booklets containing translations of the poems, so following the story isn't usually difficult.
There is a huge number of recordings of this song cycle and the different singers do have their merits. For me, however, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore's now quite venerable record is hard to beat and comes complete with Winterreise and Schwanengesang, making it extremely good value for money.Franz Schubert: Lieder, Vol. 3 is available second hand as as disc from Amazon.com, or you can buy the MP3 download.
As a contrast, Peter Schreier's recording of the cycle with Konrad Ragossnig on the guitar is also a very beautiful and perfectly legitimate performance. It is a little more expensive than the Fischer-Dieskau/Moore one, but well worth adding to your collection. Schubert: Die schone Mullerin D.795 (arranged for voice and guitar by Ragossnig and Duarte) also only seems to be available second hand from Amazon.com, but is worth hunting down.Both CD's are from my library, and were bought with my own money.