Die schˆne M¸llerin: Davies and Drake provoke fresh thoughts at Middle Temple Hall

But, Schubert dedicated Die schˆne M¸llerin to the amateur singer,
Baron Karl Freiherr von Schˆnstein. Schˆnstein was a baritone, as was
Michael Vogl who was regularly accompanied by Schubert in performances of
the composer’s lieder, and who, in 1830, wrote vocal embellishments for an
edition of the cycle by Anton Diabelli – a publication which reveals much
about how Vogl might have actually performed these songs with Schubert.
Certainly, there is ample precedent for baritones past and present,
including Fischer-Dieskau who recorded the cycle three times, and even
contraltos such as

Nathalie Stutzmann

, performing Schubert’s twenty M¸ller settings, transposed to a lower

Even so, countertenor Iestyn Davies’ recital with Julius Drake at Middle
Temple Hall was an intriguing prospect. A search for previous performances
of the cycle by countertenors unearthed a 1997 recording by Jochen Kowalski


and some performances in Germany during the late 1990s by Austrian
countertenor Bernhard Landauer (who has also sung Winterreise).
Davies and Drake essentially performed the B‰renreiter edition for low
voice (transposed down a fourth), but they made half a dozen or so
substitutions of individual songs, presumably to better accommodate Davies’
range or because some songs sit awkwardly in particular keys.

In the opening songs, the clear tone and freshness of Davies’ countertenor
bestowed some dramatic advantages, capturing the young man’s lightness of
spirit as he embarks on his journey with optimism and a spring in his step,
sure that fortune and love lie ahead. Davies seemed to deliberately aim for
an almost airy lightness, though even as early as the second song, ‘Wohin?’
(Where to?), there was the slightest hint of anxious urgency as the
wanderer questions the babbling brook where it is leading him. But, when
the vocal line rose – as in the song’s closing vision of the mill-wheels
turning in every clear stream (‘Es gehn ja M¸hlenr‰der/In jedem klaren
Bach!’) – there was a flash of translucency as pure as the cleanest

Countering this lucid wholesomeness, though, was an occasional lack of
fullness and weight to the tone, in the lower register, which deprived some
of the songs of their impetuous drive. ‘Halt!’, for example, needed a more
pressing dynamism, while in ‘Mein!’ (Mine) Davies struggled to compete with
the unremitting energy of the piano part as he asserted, with almost
desperate fervour, that the girl was his. Again, only when the voice rose –
‘Die geliebte M¸llerin ist mein!’ – did we sense the young man’s joyful
triumphalism; the equivalent of a vocal punching of the air.

In some of the strophic songs there was a lack of variety in the vocal
colour, too. And, while Davies worked hard with the text, the words
sometimes didn’t make their mark against busy accompaniments – despite
Drake’s sterling efforts to rein in the rapid, low passagework. In ‘J‰ger’
(The hunter), the voice seemed to be struggling to chase the piano’s
incessant, dry triplets and the text was lost, while in ‘Eifersucht und
Stolz’ (Jealousy and pride), which followed segue, the bitter repetitions
of ‘sag ihr’ (tell her) were swallowed by the piano’s racing rage in the

However, these minor misgivings which were more than outweighed by the
imaginative psychological portrait that Davies and Drake created, and by
the convincing coherence of the narrative arc of the sequence. The tragic
peak was not reached too early. It was only when the young lass got up to
leave the miller in the final stanza of ‘Tr‰nenregen’ (Rain of tears) –
after Davies had conjured a melting introspection as the miller becomes
absorbed in the brook’s reflection of his loved one’s eyes – that there was
a slight hardening of the vocal tone which, together with the minor key
coloration in the accompaniment, hinted at future rejection. A tense hiatus
before the twelfth song, ‘Pause’, painfully undermined the apparent
self-belief of ‘Mein!’; there followed an accumulating dynamism, before the
recognition, despair and resignation of the closing songs.

And, even ‘weaknesses’ could be used to advantage, as at the close of ‘Am
Feierabend’ (When work is over) where the mill-owner’s dismissal of his
workforce lacked the forcefulness of the miller’s recollection of the
mill-girl’s evening farewell, thereby conveying the young man’s own lack of
masculine maturity. Similarly, the two speakers in the mournful, stalling
‘waltz’, ‘Der M¸ller und der Bach’ (The miller and the brook), may not have
been strongly differentiated vocally but there was a convincing rhythmic
contrast between the floating lilt of the miller’s dolefulness and silken
dreams of the cool peace of dark waters, and the brook’s more energetic

Davies was at his best in the slower, simpler settings, where he crafted
his beautiful countertenor into unbroken legato lines of soft sweetness. In
‘Danksagung an den Bach’ (Thanksgiving to the brook) there was,
beguilingly, also a sense of incipient strength beneath the unruffled
surface, as the miller saw hope in the sun’s brightness. ‘Der Neugierige’
(The inquisitive one) had the rhetorical pathos – ‘Sag, B‰chlein, liebt sie
mich?’ (Tell me, brooklet, does she love me?) – of the most bittersweet
Elizabethan lute song. In ‘Morgengrufl’ (Morning greeting), the rising sixth
which commences each stanza shone with innocent idealisation while the
falling vocal resolutions of the miller’s hesitant questions and the
slightest withdrawal of the piano cadences captured the fragility of his
dreams and trembling disturbance of his fears.

For all the ambiguities, though, the cycle is anchored by the constancy of
the brook’s presence, and Drake expertly conjured the stream’s changing
moods: from cheerful babbling, to angry churning, to – in the final song –
soothing relief. The position of the piano part is quite low, even before
transposition, and Drake’s skill and sensitivity in overcoming the
challenges that this low tessitura presents – the danger of ‘muddiness’,
the elusiveness of true pianissimo – was remarkable: the touch was
unfailingly gentle but never at the expense of clarity and detail.

In the second half of the cycle, Davies’ countertenor became richer and
more focused, evoking the growing strength of the miller’s emotional
uncertainty. This anxiety was powerfully expressed at the close of the
penultimate stanza of ‘Pause’ where, having hung up his lute the miller
fears that its strings – whose music he can no longer bear, so full is his
heart – will be brushed by a breeze, or a bee: ‘Da wird mir so bange und es
durchschauert mich’ (I shall feel afraid and shudder). Davies left the
fermata hanging, the pain of the lingering silence finding expression in
the bitter harmonic dissonances of the final stanza, and the poignant
major-minor twists of the piano’s postlude.

In these latter songs, and particularly in the final three songs, Davies’
miller seemed much more than an embodiment of Romantic Sehnsucht,
as one finds expressed by the deathly inertia of ‘Trockne Blumen’ (Withered
flowers) and the song’s closing expression of the Romantic faith that true
love can find fulfilment only in death. Instead, it was the modernity of Die Schˆne M¸llerin which Davies and Drake
made captivatingly evident: the restlessness of a disturbed, perhaps
delusional, young man who veers between defiant hope and suicidal torment –
a restlessness which is enhanced by the fragmentation of the narrative,
which offers only brief, subjective glimpses of an imagined external world.

And, this sense of disjuncture was enhanced by what initially seemed
unsatisfying – the frequent large distance between Davies’ countertenor
line and the low-lying piano accompaniment. As the cycle progressed this
literal distance increasingly conveyed a psychological schism – as in
‘Pause’, when the piano repeats well-defined rhythmic motifs against which
the voice drifts in self-absorbed musing. The contrast between the vocal
leaps in ‘Die liebe Farbe’ (The beloved colour) and the piano’s
middle-voiced repeating note, together with the harmonic changefulness of
‘Die bˆse Farbe’ (The evil colour) spoke of the miller’s instability and
ensuing delusion. It is the brook’s own voice that speaks at the close of
the cycle, but here it might have been the voice of the protagonist
himself, lost in his own delirium.

Schubert composed Die schˆne M¸llerin under the shadows of
despair. He had contracted syphilis, probably at the end of 1822. Seriously
ill, he was admitted to hospital in May 1823, and it was in that month that
he wrote the poem, ‘My Prayer’, which contains the lines:

Behold, brought to nothing in the dust,

a prey to unheard-of-grief,

the pilgrimage of pain that is my life nears its everlasting end.

Destroy it and all I am;

cast everything into Lethe’s depths;

and then, Almighty,

let a new being thrive in purity and strength.


Sich, vernichtet liegt im Staube,

Unerhortem Gram zum Raube,

Meines Lebens Martergang Nahend ew’gem Untergang.

Todt’ es und mich selbe todte,

Sturz’ nun Alles in die Lethe,

Und ein reines kraft’ges Sein,

Lass’, o Grosser, dann gedeih’n.


In this thought-provoking recital, the final song, ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’
(The brook’s lullaby), seemed infused with a like grief for the loss of
innocence. This miller was not a would-be Romantic hero whom we might both
indulge and pity for his naivety and foolishness; rather his
misconceptions, self-deception and disenchantment seemed truly tragic.

Claire Seymour

Schubert: Die schˆne M¸llerin Op.25 D. 795

Texts by Wilhelm M¸ller

Temple Music Song, Middle Temple Hall, London; Monday 10th July

image_description=Iestyn Davies and Julius Drake, Middle Temple Hall
product_title= Iestyn Davies and Julius Drake, Middle Temple Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Iestyn Davies

Photo credit: Askonas Holt