Schubert turns poet's melodrama into timeless art

Evergreen House is the perfect setting

Stage: theater, music, dance

March 03, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Perhaps a kindred spirit may some day be found whose ear will catch the melodies from my words." When German poet Wilhelm Muller expressed that wish, not long before he died in 1827 at the age of 34, he did not know just how brilliantly and timelessly it would be granted.

Franz Schubert found in Muller's verses just the inspiration he needed to write some of his greatest art songs. A good thing, too. Otherwise, chances are that Muller and his poetry would have slipped forever into obscurity.

The bald fact is that Muller wasn't much of a poet, at least compared to other German romantics of his day. But, once set to Schubert's ineffable music, his words took on a whole new life.

The composer created two song cycles out of those words, Die schone Mullerin (The Fair Maid of the Mill) and Winterreise (Winter Journey). Both of these song cycles - a song cycle is a group of songs for voice and piano, related by poet and/or overall theme - help to define Schubert's greatness, just as they can help define the interpretive talents of singers and accompanists.

Die schone Mullerin will be performed tomorrow by baritone Randall Scarlata and pianist Jeremy Denk in an ideal setting for the intimacy of art songs, the Bakst Theatre at Evergreen House, 4545 N. Charles St. On his own, Denk will also play Beethoven's Sonata No. 28, known as Les Adieux, or "Farewell," a piece that might be thought of as a mini-song cycle without words.

Fans of lieder (German for "songs") need no encouragement to catch such a program. If you're not yet sold on this rarefied art form, the 20 songs of Die schone Mullerin provide an ideal introduction.

Although Muller wrote the poems with a strong dose of irony or parody - he and his poet pals liked poking fun at sentimental tastes of the day - Schubert had no interest in following suit. The composer was drawn instead to the possibilities for expressing the real emotions behind the scenario outlined by the poetry.

By today's cynical standards, that boy-meets-and-loses-girl scenario may seem a little lame, but the incisive fusion of words and music elevates the material to the level of high, affecting art.

In the first song, we meet a poor, wandering miller. As the cycle progresses, we learn that he has been drawn to a brook. "I don't know why I felt it, nor who gave me the idea, but I had to follow downstream with my walking stick," he sings. He comes upon a mill, finds work there and discovers the beautiful mill owner's daughter.

Our lovesick wanderer is convinced that this fair maid of the mill returns his affection, but the arrival of a macho hunter turns her head. The miller returns forlorn to the brook, which offers him solace in its deep waters, a final, eternal sleep on "a cool bed with a soft pillow in a little crystal room."

To convey the shifting mood of the poetry, from happy-go-lucky to love-struck to heartsick to suicidal, Schubert deftly, subtly changes the coloring of the music over the course of the cycle's roughly hour-long duration, leading from sunshine to moonlight.

The vocal lines often have the directness and informality of folk song (in several songs, there are note-for-note repeats of the same melody for each verse), but even at their simplest, they can rise to eloquent heights to reveal layers of feeling behind of the text.

The presence of the brook can be felt in various ways throughout the cycle in the piano's accompaniment, rippling and bouncing with wave-like motion early on, eventually slowing to a gentle, lulling motion in the calmness of night.

Harmony, too, plays a role in pulling us into this emotional world, nowhere more tellingly than in the fourth song, when the miller gives thanks to the brook for leading him to the lovely maid. In the piano part, a contented major key holds sway for the first two verses, but at the third, as the miller asks the brook "Did she send you?" the tonality shifts almost imperceptibly to minor. He's too enraptured to notice the warning.

Such inspired touches can be heard at almost every turn in the journey of heart and soul that is Die schone Mullerin.

For more theater, classical music and dance events, see Page 34.

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