Die schöne Müllerin: Thomas Guthrie and Barokksolistene take Schubert’s song-cycle back to its roots

The first complete performance of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin took place in Vienna’s Musikverein on 4th May 1856, by the baritone Julius Stockhausen (1826–1906) accompanied by the Viennese Vice-Hofkapellmeister, Benedict Randhartinger (1802-93), a song composer in his own right, more than three decades after the song-cycle was composed in 1823.  

Stockhausen was a central figure in the history of performance practice with regard to German lieder, both as an interpreter and a teacher, and in shaping the recital format comprising a small number of complete works which dominates concert halls to this day – although, as Natasha Loges, points out, we need to be wary when perusing contemporary concert bills and programme as the actual works performed but might be shaped by circumstantial factors, and additional numbers presented as encores.[1]

Interest in Schubert’s music had been growing in Vienna over the preceding two decades, and Loges notes the various ways – ‘including arrangements, improvisations and semi-dramatizations’ – in which it had been, and continued to be, presented: for example, the song ‘Gruppe aus dem Tartarus’ was heard in an orchestration by the opera Kapellmeister Herr Esser in November 1859; choral arrangements of favourite songs such as ‘Litanei auf das Fest Aller Seelen’ were common; on 13th February 1862, ‘Der Müller und der Bach’, the penultimate song of Die schöne Müllerin was performed (along with a work by Mendelssohn) in an arrangement for harmonium.  Loges records that on 26th November 1862, the audience attending a soirée at the home of the Austrian pianist and composer Carl Haslinger (1816-68), which was billed as an ‘Erinnerungsfeier an Franz Schubert’ were ‘politely requested to bring themes by Schubert for free improvisation’. 

Stockhausen had himself sung individual songs from Die schöne Müllerin for many years before he performed the cycle complete, in long miscellany programmes which was the format which predominated at that time.  His performance of the complete cycle on 4th May 1856 was reviewed by Eduard Hanslick who was delighted that Stockhausen had avoided the customary ‘hotchpotch of pieces’ and commented – the patriotic tone is noteworthy – that the large audience were undoubtedly ‘genuine devotees of German music’.

The very first performances of the texts and songs which form Die schöne Müllerin, took place in very different contexts, however.  Susan Youens has charted the development and early performances of the cycle, noting the friendship that poet Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827) forged with the Prussian politician and diplomat Friedrich August von Stägemann, and his wife Elisabeth, in whose Bauhofstraße home some of the poems were presented in public for the first time as a Liederspiel, ‘Rose, die Müllerin’, in 1816, by members of a circle of young intellectuals.[2]  Müller performed the part of the lovelorn miller, naturally. 

Such gatherings, which brought together friends and acquaintances to discuss art, literature, music, and politics, were common in Vienna in the early decades of the 19th century, and Schubert’s own songs were performed in not dissimilar, though perhaps less ‘refined’ circumstances – evenings which would come to be known as ‘Schubertiades’.  Schubert would accompany singers such as Johann Michael Vogl (1768-1840), or sing himself, in his light baritone voice.  Josef Huber wrote to his fiancée, Rosalie Kranzbichler, on 30th January 1821: ‘Last Friday I had excellent entertainment … Franz invited Schubert in the evening and fourteen of his close acquaintances.  So a lot of splendid songs by Schubert were sung and played by himself, which lasted until after 10 o’clock in the evening.  After that punch was drunk, offered by one of the party, and as it was very good and plentiful the party, in a happy mood anyhow, became even merrier; so it was 3 o’clock in the morning before we parted.’  One senses the spontaneity of such performances in these convivial gatherings.

I’ve previously spoken with singer and director Thomas Guthrie about his interest in these earliest performances of Schubert’s songs, in the context of his Schubert 200 project, which is supported by Music and Theatre for All.  Having enjoyed Tom’s performance of Die schöne Müllerin as part of one of Barokksolistene’s ‘Alehouse Sessions’ at Middle Temple Hall in November 2021, it’s a real pleasure to see that Rubicon have now released a recording of the cycle, as sung and arranged by Tom for string quintet and two guitars.

When I meet again with Tom, I ask him about the impetus and ambitions informing this ‘recreation’ of Schubert’s cycle, and whether and how it aimed to overcome the distinct technical challenges that will have inevitably shaped the Temple performance, and on which occasion the whole cycle wasn’t presented.  He immediately ‘corrects’ me!  “It’s not so much about ‘recreating’ the cycle, rather telling the stories for now, about performing the music as Schubert might want us to, creating not recreating – creating stories, through music, text, voice, that touch people, alongside Schubert, helping him achieve his aims.”

Tom acknowledges that the ‘formal’ settings which are now the most common setting for lieder performances can offer wonderful experiences.  But, he and Music and Theatre for All aim to do something subtly different.  Interestingly, Tom studied for a PhD on the subject of ornamentation in Schubert lieder; in 1830 Anton Diabelli published an edition of Die schöne Müllerin which included the alterations that Vogl introduced in performance.  Tom explains: “It’s an opportunity to come to the cycle without any ‘baggage’ and to put the text – the storytelling – first.  The score of the arrangement includes instructions which are inherently dramatic: ‘tell her’, and ‘try not to cry’.  What’s important is to communicate this to the audience or listener, and this means balancing discipline and freedom.”

Just listen to the opening song on the disc, ‘Das Wandern’.  There’s an earthy bite to the texture, an elastic springiness to the accompanying rhythms.  Guthrie sings with a light, unaffected tone, but not without nuance: there are charming decorations of the repeated phrases that feel impulsive and add brightness and energy.  Pizzicatos assert themselves.  I defy any listener to stop their toe tapping.  One can imagine gulping down a pungent beer in the rhythmic ‘gaps’.

It’s essential to understand the ‘rhetoric’, the ‘process’ that was understood by the performers and listeners – to understand what the text intends, Tom explains.  “The words themselves are one step away from the ‘idea’,” suggests Tom.  “The performers and audience in Schubert’s day would share the journey to the source of that idea.  Up to the age of fifteen, Schubert was taught in Greek and had an absolutely cast-iron understanding that the musical aspect of the composition did only half of the job.  That specific things were expected of the performance itself.  That’s the way we approach the songs.  We are certainly not arrogant, and feel humbled by the opportunity to stand up and present what we think and feel, to communicate and make an occasion for the listener.”

Listening to ‘Wohin’ – the immediacy of the performance is utterly persuasive – those small ebbs and flows, tugs and tussles, feel so natural.  The instrumental introduction to ‘Halt’ is abrasive and challenging: one really feels the clatter of the mill wheels that the miller espies through the trees, but there’s a lovely diminuendo at the close which captures the miller’s hesitant questioning, “Stream, lovely stream/ Is that what you mean?” (The translations in the liner book are Guthrie’s own.)  Only the brutal grating of horse-hair on gut could conjure the visceral impact of the opening of ‘Am Feierabend’ that almost assaults the listener here. 

The use of solo guitar of ‘Die Neugierige’ creates a delicate intimacy – and reminds us that Schubert sometimes played the guitar to accompany his songs – and the introduction of the full ensemble in subsequent stanzas reveals the gap between reality and fantasy that the miller occupies.  And, there is poignancy, too, in the subtle interplay of instruments and voice in ‘Morgengruß’.  In ‘Tränenregen’, the tears really do fall; the dry, fading pizzicato close is heart-breaking.  But, the following ‘Mein’ is fittingly earthy and robust. 

One really does feel sucked into the unfolding narrative, but ‘Pause’, accompanied by solo guitar, creates just that – a moment of reflection as the miller hangs his lute on the wall (“Meine Laute hab’ ich gehängt an die Wand”).  There’s some lovely, heart-tugging, head-voice tenderness and expressive rubato from Guthrie here, too – and in ‘Der Jäger’ the precision and clarity of the tumbling staccato triplet quavers is impressive.  The percussive thump which strikes through ‘Trockne Blumen’ not only accentuates the ‘dryness’ of the flowers but feels like the miller’s pained heartbeat.

I play devil’s advocate and wonder whether there is a tension between the desire to conjure the spontaneity of those early performances at a contemporary Schubertiade and making a recording of a ‘definitive’ version of the cycle?  Tom accepts that there is perhaps some conflict between the two endeavours but argues that over the years of performing these songs, some ‘favourite’ versions have emerged.  “Something captures the imagination at a particular time.  Certainly, one adopts a very different approach when recording, for posterity, as it were.  The recording is crafted, edited, by crafts-people.  One aims to make something beautiful, that communicates your ‘meaning’ but also respects the listener.”

One thing that is clearly important to Tom is to share this music with as wide an audience as possible.  “It’s very important to share our approach and performance, to communicate that it’s not necessary for Schubert’s songs to be presented in a ‘grand’ performance.  Our performance might be the first time that some experience lieder – people who feel that lieder is ‘not for them’.  But, it’s not necessary to go to Wigmore Hall to experience the power of the story about a young boy and his love for a miller’s daughter – this colourful world.”   The recording-launch performance at the wonderful pub, Balham Bowls Club, will have confirmed that the audience – their noise and all – are as much part of a performance of Die schöne Müllerin as the singer and musicians.

Tom states his aims and ambitions with lucidity and honesty: “I would hope that younger generations will hear our version of Die schöne Müllerin and find it fresh and beautiful, and feel, ‘I didn’t know it could be like this’.”

Claire Seymour

[1] Natasha Loges (2018), ‘Julius Stockhausen’s Early Performances of Franz Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin’, Nineteenth-Century Music, Vol.41 No.3: 206-24.

[2] Susan Youens (1992), ‘Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin’, Cambridge Music Handbooks, Cambridge University Press.