Schubert and Müller

For a review of Schubert's life there are many sites you can visit on the web. Specifically on Winterreise you are invited to see a new site by Margo Briessinck. A site on Wilhelm Müller is currently being prepared by Cecilia Cloughly in connection with the Internationale-Wilhelm-Müller-Gesellschaft in Berlin. I have spent several years searching and researching the composer Schubert as well as the poet Wilhelm Müller. My findings are examined in my PhD dissertation titled "Die Winterreise": an Argument for Performing the Cycle of Songs by Franz Schubert in the Order of the Poems by Wilhelm Müller (New York University, 1992). In it I discuss 1) the controversy surrounding the cycle, 2) sources of the dramatic text, 3) the poet and his relationship to the poems, 4) the composer and the influences on his creative effort, and 5) analyze the 24 songs in the poet's order. Following is a partial summation of the principal conclusions found in the dissertation:

Throughout the study it was argued that sufficient cause exists to challenge the traditional order; i.e., the sequence of the 24 songs of Schubert's Winterreise found in all editions of the cycle. From the composer's concessions to the vocal range of five of the songs, his lowering of the melody of another ("Auf dem Flusse"), and the changing of the key in "Frühlingstraum," as well as the many revisions that had been made in his first part manuscript, it was apparent that Schubert did not consider these compositions unalterable. He adhered to Müller's original order of the first 12 poems and it seems likely that he purposely arranged the continuation of Die Winterreise as close to the order in the poet's final publication (1824) as possible. The penultimate placement of "Die Nebensonnen" was perhaps another concession to the publisher in his efforts to placate wary censors.

These mundane influences on the form of the composition suggest that other connections between the circumstances of Schubert's life and the musical setting of Müller's poems was possible. Throughout the analysis various signs of empathy with the sentiment of the poems are recognized as they project the composer's feelings in musical symbols of ambiguity and ambivalence. The identification of the song "Täuschung" as a sign of the special relationship with his friend Schober provided strength to the argument that the complex personal life of Schubert was linkable to the act of creating the cycle's songs.

The attempt of understanding the dramatic and--to some degree--musical development of the cycle from an esoteric perspective is only one of the interpretative possibilities that Die Winterreise has to offer. The researcher has purposely been less than specific in identifying the meaning of the cycle's songs solely with Masonic ideology. However intriguing this interpretation may be, it is difficult to substantiate given the nature of this secret society and the fact that it was banned in Austria in Schubert's time. Therefore, the researcher has attempted to maintain an open approach toward the cycle and allowed an interpretative eclecticism to infuse its analysis.

There can be little doubt that sufficient cause exists to argue for a performance of Winterreise in the poet's order. This is not to say that this order is the only alternative to the published Schubert arrangement. As the possibilities inherent in a variety of sequences are considered, it may be deemed plausible to contemplate further reordering of the 24 songs. This is what the poet had done and, thereby, unleashed the present controversy. A different key arrangement can also be considered if a performer has strong preferences over the ones that current editions have to offer. Finally, it remains to consider that an acceptable alternative to current performance practice precludes a written model. The act of performance imposes conditions on a musical setting. Upon closer examination of the factors surrounding the creation of not only the music, but also the literary text of Die Winterreise, it becomes apparent that there is ample call for a fresh appraisal of what this great work of art is in its presently printed form and what it could become as a result of an alternative edition.

If argument exists over the reading of a piece of music, it is significant that no version is in print to counter-balance the debate. Neither the student, the amateur performer of Schubert's songs, nor the professional Lieder singer--not to mention the greater art-song audience--has the opportunity to research and properly evaluate the many factors bearing on the words and music as they could be performed. Instead of pre-judging the propriety of questioning a traditional view, the modern musicologist carries the responsibility to make available the structural means by which such evaluation can best be given its ultimate test: the presentation to an audience.

This study has raised a number of issues about Schubert and Müller and the circumstances of the creation of the song cycle, which in the form discussed in the analysis should be called Die Winterreise. Many of the problems surrounding the cycle bear further exploration; however, of all the directions that new studies may take in regard to the 24 songs, the most attractive possibility may be to provide a performance model in the form of an alternative edition on which the presentation of the cycle can be based.

Questions about Schubert and Müller? Contact Rick Hartung