Schubert Interlude: Die schöne Müllerin

Last Thursday I attended a complete performance of Schubert’s twenty-song cycle, Die schöne Müllerin, one of the headlining events at this year’s Oregon Bach Festival here in Eugene. The piece was beautifully and dynamically delivered by Thomas Quasthoff, a world-renowned interpreter of Romantic lieder, and accompanied by Robert Levin, who literally saved the evening by filling in for Jeffrey Kahane at the last minute. (Kahane, after holding out hope till the last minute, canceled that morning. Levin performed with only three rehearsals, and gave a Hinkle Distinguished Lecture earlier in the day!)

The performance was a special treat for me, given that our reading and posting on the TC has recently centered on Schubert and the lied. The performance was a solo recital (Müllerin was the only thing on the program) in the largest hall available in the Hult Center, due to Quasthoff’s popularity. (He is a favorite at the OBF, where he had his U.S. debut in 1995.) I was a bit skeptical about how such an intimate genre would come off in such a large hall. After all this is the same space where they stage opera, musicals, and symphony performances. But any skepticism I had melted away not long after the music started.

In fact, it melted precisely at the start of the second stanza of the sixth song, “Der Neugierige” (Curiosity), when the miller asks the brook whether or not the mill-boss’s daughter indeed loves him:

O brooklet of my love,
Why are you so quiet today?
I want to know just one thing—
One little word again and again.

The one little word is “Yes”;
The other is “No”
Both these little words
Make up the entire world to me.

O brooklet of my love,
Why are you so strange?
I’ll surely not repeat it;
Tell me, o brooklet, does she love me?

Suddenly, Quasthoff was singing con sordino, with such hope and naïvete. I was seated a couple hundred feet away from him, but in that moment I felt that Quasthoff was whispering the words right next to me. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

Taruskin spends a lot of time talking about the “music trance,” giving mainly a harmonic rationale for such a phenomenon (via the use of the flat submediant, etc.). But this concert reminded me yet again of the huge dependence music has on performance. Music is always better (speaking for myself here now) when it is temporal, being shared/communicated from one person to another. Unfortunately, I think the gentleman sitting behind me during the concert missed out on this great transaction. I heard measured, audible breathing—tell-tale signs of a quite different type of “musical trance.” His loss.

I couldn’t find a video of Quasthoff singing this exact song, so I urge you to seek out the recording (available on iTunes and elsewhere). But to hold you over until you have the chance, here he is interpreting Schubert’s “Leiermann,” from Wintereisse, with Daniel Barenboim accompanying.


  1. Elaine Fine says:

    I heard a performance of Die schöne Müllerin given by Nathan Gunn and John Wustman in the 1990s in a large hall at the small state university that is in my town. It was before Nathan Gunn was “Nathan Gunn,” and it was during Wustman’s decade-long “reise” with different singers in different places, through all Schubert’s lieder. It was his very generous way of celebrating Schubert’s 200th birthday.

    The concert, which was free, was not publicized very well (if at all), and there might have been ten people in the audience (I learned about the concert from a friend). My daughter (who was six or seven at most) and I were mesmerized by the way this young singer delivered the song cycle like a storyteller. I knew the music well, and knew the words (one of the ways I learned German was through Schubert) but my daughter was hearing the music and the language for the first time. I was really kind of shocked. I expected her to fall asleep (at best), but she was on the edge of her seat through the whole performance.

    She seemed to understand everything that is important about the song cycle from hearing it delivered to her by that stunning singing actor and his all-knowing pianist. There is so much more to singing Schubert than just singing Schubert.

    1. Mark Samples says:

      “There is so much more to singing Schubert than just singing Schubert.”

      Agreed! And that’s a very nice way to say it.

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