One of the most poignant definitions of music is as a “syntax of time”: by giving order and meaning to the sounds which unfold in time, music also contributes to the human beings’ capability to articulate time as a history and as a story, as a narrative and as a tale. Yet, similar to our experience of time in general, musical time has both elements of progress and novelty (“linear time”, time with a forward direction) and cyclic or recurring elements (such as the year’s seasons in “real life”, or returning elements in the musical discourse). A third component may also be added, even though only in imagination and sometimes in desire: the possibility of getting back in time, to recover the past, to relive and re-experience its fondest moments.
As the Schubert scholar Luisa Mennuti has fascinatingly written, these three elements are all present in the music of Franz Schubert. Indeed, one of its characterising features is the wanderer, and his action (“das Wandern”, in German) is one of the protagonists of Schubert’s music, and particularly (though by no means exclusively) of his songs, the Lieder. Many of Schubert’s Lieder feature the wanderer in their title, and virtually countless relate, in a diverse fashion, to the act of wandering, of walking aimlessly. Indeed, the wanderer’s life is in his wandering; he is so bound to the unceasing movement of his nomadic life that his very existence would vanish, should he decide to root himself and to settle in a fixed place.
There are specific musical figurations which depict the first kind of “wandering”, the idea of walking forward: a walk which is still confident, rather optimistic, with some hope for the future. Others develop the Baroque motifs of the circulatio and represent the circular motion: they are frequently linked to visual imagery found in Schubert’s songs, such as, for example, Gretchen’s spinning wheel, the mill’s wheel, or, in the unforgettable last song of Winterreise, the wheel of the hurdy-gurdy. By encountering the forward motion of the brook and encapsulating it within its circular motion, the watermill effectively transforms the first type of movement into the second. Last, but by no means least, is the overarching nostalgia which encompasses virtually all of Schubert’s musical output, in different degrees; it is the powerful, intimate and all-pervading longing for a mother’s love, for consolation, for tenderness. It is the rocking to and fro of the mother’s arms; neither forward, nor circular; and the wanderer, in his misfortunes and in his chronic lack of love, desperately hopes to recover those feelings. It is the lullaby, which, in Schubert’s music, frequently becomes the lullaby of death; it is the kind of consolation offered to the weary youth by the linden tree in Der Lindenbaum, again in Winterreise; it is a movement which approximates stillness, and yet, by its hypnotic power, transfixes the gaze in a fashion which the absence of movement cannot aim at achieving.
When the listener attempts to recognize and to discern these three types of movement in Schubert’s music, its most recondite meaning is progressively revealed. And this certainly applies to Die schöne Müllerin, op. 25, D795, the first “song cycle” penned by the composer, and probably the first masterpiece in this genre.
The story behind its composition is curious and complex. The mill is a place of encounter: among human beings, but also with nature. It is the place where nature’s power (water) and nature’s gifts (the cereals) are transformed into life-giving nourishment for the human beings. So, the mill’s inhabitants are surrounded by an almost magical aura, being those who can subjugate the rough forces of nature, tame them and convert them into a shared bread. No wonder that these themes conquered the fantasy of writers and artists between Enlightenment (when technology, reason and progress gave the delusion that human control could enslave all irrational things) and Romanticism, when Nature took her vengeance and seduced humankind particularly in her most savage, horrid and sublime forms.
One of the first literary and musical works explicitly focused on the mill’s inhabitants was La Molinara, an opera by the Italian composer Giovanni Paisiello, which took Europe by storm and on which Beethoven composed a cycle of well-known and much-played variations. Possibly inspired by the Molinara’s success, a group of young intellectuals which used to spend the evenings together, absorbed in artistic undertakings and amusements, decided to create a new version of the story: the group gathered at the house of Friedrich August von Stägemann in Berlin, and among its members were Achim von Arnim, Wilhelm Hensel (who would later marry Felix Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny), and a young poet whose family name was, quite aptly, “Müller” (miller). Ladies were not missing: in particular, Stägemann’s adolescent daughter, Hedwig, and Hensel’s sister, Luise, took active part in the cultural meetings of the circle.
The idea was to create a verse-play with multiple authors: each member would embody a character and write the poetry for his or her persona. The resulting poems were, of course, of varying degrees of refinement; Wilhelm Müller, who had impersonated the miller, had composed some stanzas which attracted the attention of Ludwig Berger, a professional musician who was also the teacher of both Luise Hensel and Fanny Mendelssohn, and who was the first to set to music five of Müller’s poems and five among those written by the other friends. Later, Müller would rework his own poems and constitute them as an autonomous cycle, which he would publish, along with other works, in a collection of Seventy-seven poems from the Posthumous Papers of a Traveling Horn Player – to be read in winter.
How Schubert came to acquire Müller’s poems is an unsolved mystery in musical historiography, though various plausible (and some implausible) stories have been told; what we do know is that the young musician, at a particularly difficult time of his short life (he was spending several months at a hospital, and had been diagnosed with the illness which would lead him to his premature death), undertook the composition of music on those lyrics, conceiving them as a unity of both words and music, and as a unity of artistic concept.
The lyrics narrate the protagonist’s story in the first person; their style is purposefully simple and frequently repetitive, in imitation of the original “wander-songs” which countless unknown and illiterate German poets had muttered and sung in the middle ages. Full of youthful spirit and of nature’s electrifying power, the young poet walks briskly, surrounded by nature in its full bloom (Das Wandern); he is then caught at first by the brook’s cheerful sounds, and later by the sight of the mill and of the beautiful maiden who lives there: his steps, which used to go forward in the spring of his own life, are fatally trapped by the circular motion of the mill’s wheel.
At first, his timid approaches to the schöne Müllerin seem not to be entirely unwelcome; however, Müller’s poetry (and Schubert’s music) prefer the art of suggesting to that of narrating, and we discover much more of the artists’ (and of the protagonist’s) feelings and interiority than of the facts of a love-story. Nature is the undisputed coprotagonist of the cycle, and it is to her that the youth addresses his songs, much more than, actually, to his beloved. For example, the language of flowers is employed in Des Müllers Blumen, while the brook and its water are constantly encountered – particularly when the lover’s tears silently fall within its stream (Tränenregen).
The protagonist finally manages to capture a few moments of bliss, when he perceives that his love may be reciprocated (Mein!), when he reveals to the girl that he is a musician (Pause) and, in turn, she tells him about her favourite colour, green. And green will be a recurring shade in the poetry to come. From the forest’s green comes the poet’s rival, a hunter (Schubert’s music delights in depicting the sounds of the hunting horn, as he would do in Die Post from Winterreise); the poet’s jealousy thus sees this formerly worshipped colour as a detested nuance (Die böse Farbe), while, at the same time, welcoming it as the colour of the grass which will ultimately grow over his own grave. Taking the cue from Goethe’s Werther and the suicidal thoughts it inspired in the minds of so many youths in the Romantic era, the poet subtly prepares the ground for the idea of death as the liberation from suffering.
This theme will become explicit in the last Lieder of the cycle. Trock’ne Blumen, one of the most unforgettable moments of Schubert’s entire musical output, is the realization that springtime is gone forever: though another spring will come, in due time, the poet knows he will not be there to behold it. Thus, cyclical time bows to the inexorability of linear time: the delusion that “another spring” will come cannot deny the reality of the transience of all moments in time. With the death of spring’s flowers comes also the death of the poet’s hope: Der Müller und der Bach is the poet’s adieu to Time, embodied by the flowing brook. The cycle’s last Lied, Des Baches Wiegenlied, is the death lullaby sung by the brook itself to the youth: instead of a mother’s warm embrace, there is the freezing hold of a wintry river; instead of hope and love, there is the stillness of death.
In spite of this, however, and although these depressing themes abound in the poems set to music by Schubert, his music seems also to offer an escape from such a bleak worldview. There is always such a tenderness, such a constant quest for beauty and for the infinite, that this music seems to belie what it preaches: the enchantment of music, the communication of feelings and emotions it provides is the implicit, and yet powerful announcement, that love, communion and hope are still possible.
Album notes by Chiara Bertoglio
Born in Seoul, Joo Cho graduated at the “Verdi” Conservatory in Milan and she continued her studies with Peter Schreier and Helmut Deutsch. She has won several International competitions: among them, the “Giulio Neri” Singing Competition in Torrita di Siena (Italy) and the “Haverhill Sinfonia Soloist Competition” (UK). She has performed operas, oratorios and sacred music in venues such as: Opera House in Seoul, Tiroler Festspiele Erl, Auditorio Nacional in Madrid, Teatro Comunale in Modena, Auditorium della Conciliazione in Rome, Teatro degli Arcimboldi in Milan, Sala Verdi at the Milan Conservatory, Teatro Sociale in Rovigo, Milan Cathedral, Teatro Vittorio Emanuele in Messina, Teatro Regio in Parma. She has sung under Gustav Kuhn, Donato Renzetti, Flavio Emilio Scogna, Romano Gandolfi, John Anderson, Christopher Fifield, Carlo Frajese. Among her performances: La Traviata by Verdi, La Bohème by Puccini, Così fan tutte and Die Zauberflöte by Mozart, Der Ring des Nibelungen and Parsifal by Wagner, Messa da Requiem by Verdi, Exsultate, jubilate by Mozart, 4th Symphony by Mahler, Requiem by Mozart, Les Illuminations by Britten, Betulia liberata by Mozart, Stabat mater by Rossini, Mirjams Siegesgesang by Schubert. Joo Cho is very interested in Lied repertoire and she has sung Lied Concerts in Palacio Marqués de Salamanca in Madrid, Musée Debussy in Paris, Musée Würth in Strasbourg, Festival MiTo in Milan, Salone del Conservatorio in Turin, Großer Saal der Musikhochschule in Lübeck, Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, Charterhouse in Godalming, Hayward Theatre in Ely, Sala della musica in Lugano, Museum of Art National University in Seoul. She has often sung twentieth century and contemporary music: she performed world premieres by Giacomo Manzoni, Adriano Guarnieri, Vladimir Rannev, Luca Francesconi, Yotam Haber, Stefano Gervasoni, Alessandro Solbiati, Nicola Sani and many others. She sang the posthumous world premiere of Sette by Niccolò Castiglioni (Passionspielhaus in Erl, under Tito Ceccherini) and the Japanese premiere of Il rumore del tempo by Manzoni (Suntory Hall in Tokyo, with members of the Ensemble Intercontemporain). In 2015 she performed La fabbrica illuminata by Luigi Nono in Milan (Musica/Realtà), on the 25th death anniversary of the composer. She has recorded for labels Bongiovanni, Col legno, Limen, Classica Viva.
Italian pianist Marino Nahon graduated at the “Verdi” Conservatory in Milan; he continued his studies with Piero Rattalino, Michele Fedrigotti and Pietro Soraci, and he attended masterclasses with Paul Badura-Skoda, Dalton Baldwin, Bruno Canino, Phillip Moll, Antonio Ballista, Irwin Gage, Alexander Lonquich. He has performed as a soloist, as a chamber musician and as a Lied accompanist in various concert halls in Italy (Turin: Sala 500 del Lingotto, Salone del Conservatorio; Rome: Sala Baldini, Villa Torlonia; Parma: Casa della Musica; Genoa: Palazzo Ducale; Orvieto: Teatro Mancinelli; Modena: GMI; Naples: Fondazione Humaniter; Venice: Palazzo Albrizzi; Alessandria: Auditorium Pittaluga; Milan: Sala Verdi and Sala Puccini of the Conservatory, Festival MiTo, Società dei Concerti, Milano Classica, Musica/Realtà), in France (Paris: “Atelier Concerts”, Musée Debussy; Aix-en-Provence: “Concerts d'Aix”; Nice: Auditorium Nucéra), in Switzerland (Geneva: Concerts d’été en Vieille-Ville), in UK (Stratford-upon-Avon: Shakespeare Institute; Godalming: Charterhouse; Ely: Hayward Theatre; Colchester: University of Essex), in USA (San Francisco: Italian Cultural Institute), in Japan (Kyoto: Fumin Hall ALTI; Kumagaya: Sakuramate Theatre), in South Korea (Seoul: Museum of Art National University), in Taiwan (Taipei: National Theatre), in Turkey (Ankara: Hacettepe University Concert Hall). In 2018 he gave a solo recital at the Museo Teatrale alla Scala in Milan, on the piano once owned by Franz Liszt. He is also an active performer of twentieth century and contemporary music, and he played, in first performances, works by Vladimir Rannev, Yotam Haber, Adriano Guarnieri, Stefano Gervasoni, Dario Maggi, Osvaldo Coluccino, Corrado Rojac, Alessandra Ciccaglioni, Alessandro Melchiorre, Giovanni Damiani, Gabriele Cosmi, Rocco Abate, Luca Cori, Sonia Bo, Gabriele Manca, Giuliano Zosi, Nicola Sani and others. He has studied composition with Bruno Zanolini at the Milan Conservatory and musicology with Emilio Sala at the Università degli studi of Milan, where he graduated: he is the author of several musicological essays, which appeared in magazines such as «Musica e Storia» and «Musicalia – Annuario internazionale di studi musicologici».
Franz Schubert: (b Vienna, 31 Jan 1797; d Vienna, 19 Nov 1828). Austrian composer. The only canonic Viennese composer native to Vienna, he made seminal contributions in the areas of orchestral music, chamber music, piano music and, most especially, the German lied. The richness and subtlety of his melodic and harmonic language, the originality of his accompaniments, his elevation of marginal genres and the enigmatic nature of his uneventful life have invited a wide range of readings of both man and music that remain among the most hotly debated in musical circles.