In search of the Miller Maid

Robert MurrayFri 3rd June 2016

Robert Murray explores his long and intense relationship with Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin

As a child I'd always held a mild fascination for the countryside. I grew up in Brentwood, Essex, and aside from the odd walk with the family and the dog, and sports in the park, it all amounted to a pretty suburban existence. The Metropolitan Green Belt was insufficiently wild to provide real isolation but it suggested what lay further afield.

I remember seeing photos of my GrandfatherSir (he insisted on us calling him this, so it became one word) accompanied by a Springer Spaniel, holding fish or game he'd bagged, and I fantasised about the environment that he inhabited. I imagined darkened forests and streams full of wildlife, bonfires and beer. The Essex countryside I was imagining was actually probably more akin to pictures evoked by my adolescent reading: such as The Country of the Two Rivers, Taw and Torridge from Williamson's Tarka the Otter or the meadows around Sandleford Warren from Watership Down. My own experience of Essex, just off the M25, pointed directly towards London and so the wider countryside was behind my back. I suspect my grandad's shoulders generally faced the other way, his vista the countryside of North Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk.

I refer to these juvenile flights of fancy because I have always imagined the world of Schubert and Müller's Die schöne Müllerin to take place in an environment steeped in primary colours, fantasy and jumbled memories. In learning the cycle for the first time, I found it very useful not only to imagine this fictional environment but to draw cartoons and highlight the bigger statements made by the boy in bold letters. While this served the obvious purpose of an aide-memoire when performing, and extended my experience with the poetry, it seemed a particularly suitable learning technique for this piece.

Our vulnerable Miller lad is beholden to talking streams, flowers, and empathetic stars in his journey through the cycle. In his lonely musings on the maid, mostly at a distance, she becomes an idealised love interest and his justified paranoia exalts the Hunter to arch villain. His obsession with green, and his poetic descriptions of his environment all lend themselves to this cartoon fantastical world.

While this may also open him up to clinical diagnosis, we shouldn't burden him with sickness but find a truth from his point of view, as he sees it in each moment. His innocence and openness provides the chasm in which doubt, loneliness and obsession can ambush him, rather than any prevailing sickness forcing his inevitable downfall.

Over the years I have variously dwelt on his state of mind, his sexuality, his paranoia and his obsession, but my instinct is that this is for the analysis of the listener or academic. As a performer it seems that an approach with the least pre-judgement and a commitment to the possibilities of the composition itself opens more doors than it closes. This doesn't mean a naive denial of the dramatic and musical context of the piece (Schubert's style and the narrative environment must naturally frame every approach), but once that is in place the boy is free to make his merry way. His age is important, and his experience (or lack of it): I would place him at 16, a juvenile 16 at that - his experience of life fairly meagre and his innocence opening his brow to all.

This vulnerability and inquisitive nature always reminds me of Tarka, also in fear of the insatiable hunter Deadlock: 'He was called Tarka, which was the name given to otters many years ago by men dwelling in hut circles on the moor. It means Little Water Wanderer, or, Wandering as Water.'

★★★

Die schöne Müllerin has been the piece I have performed the most in recital since I began working as a singer. The first time, in 2004, just after I'd finished the Opera course at the Royal College of Music and when I was beginning to study at the National Opera Studio, was with Malcolm Martineau. It was a watershed moment in my comprehension of what it might be to sing Lieder.

Previously, while at the RCM, Lieder had been something best left to those who took pride in the intellectual side of singing and had a prior interest in it. I always found song classes at College scary anyway, everyone seemed so accomplished. Before this, I remember singing Erlkönig at a University exam (the poor pianist dropped her glasses when I told her the repertoire) without fear, or quality, and enjoying playing out the drama of Schubert's operatic setting, but throughout my time at the RCM I had not really committed to song more than I needed to. I didn't actually believe I'd been asked to do it at first:

[Home phone answer machine beep]

'Hello, my name's Malcolm Martineau, we met after Albert Herring with Jonny and Damien. I hope you don't mind me calling you at home. I am wondering if you would be interested in performing Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin with me at St John's, Smith Square in October. I am going to perform all the cycles in one day and would love it if you would be available for it. Sorry for the long message. Looking forward to hearing from you. Thanks.'

I thought this was a joke. I had previously been called by friends from the RCM offering me fictional jobs and couldn't believe Malcolm Martineau was actually phoning me up at home. Anyway, I did some checks and it turned out it was Malcolm Martineau on the answer machine, so I would have a lot of work to do. I had about three months to learn the songs, and although I'd learned operas in the past I'd never had to learn anything of the magnitude of this piece: 20 German songs, some painfully strophic, and an hour long. Given most principal roles in opera actually sing for approximately 30 minutes, this was going to take a lot of doing. It was also one of those dreaded 'famous' pieces for a singer: Fritz Wunderlich, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and latterly Ian Bostridge amongst others had given such different but extraordinary recordings that echoed in the background whenever it is mentioned. I'd always tried to avoid such pieces, for fear of the definite failure and ensuing embarrassment. Could I not just sing Handel's 'Where 'ere ye walk' for ever?

So, in a prequel to all subsequent learning, I spent two months deliberating over when to open the score, and drawing up fictional revision plans, when the fear sufficiently set in for me to actually get to work.

★★★

Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin is a perfect cycle for a young singer to learn. The vocal range isn't too large, and apart from the vocal agility needed for some of the faster songs, 'Ungeduld' and 'Der Jäger' for instance, there isn't anything too challenging technically. The story also suits a younger man: the tale is of a boy, leaving his parents' or guardians' house to find an apprenticeship in a Mill. He finds a job, and therefore a home, falls in love with the eponymous Maid of the Mill and after realising she is in love with someone else, mourns his loss, falls into a deep depression and kills himself.

This simplistic view of the work (as repeated often by me when I try to briefly explain what happens in the cycle) does nothing to articulate the narrative of the cycle and the epic journey taken by the boy on this passage from sunny optimism to considered suicide. Müller's poetry heightened by Schubert's simple, yet multifaceted setting provide so much dense articulation of feeling and layered narrative that the tale is just one part of the whole.

★★★

I have taken part in two staged productions of Müllerin. The first one was in 2005, when I was a Young Artist at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, directed by another Young Artist at the time, Harry Fehr. In this production, the piano was on a grassy stage, with a black stream across the front. Harry had re-imagined the stream as a girl, a nymph (Nixen) perhaps, cajoling and seducing the boy along his journey: conjuring up the Miller Maid when needed and then returning to her role as the stream. In this case the boy was enamoured twice over, highlighting his dependence and fascination with the stream (liebes bächlein) as well as his love for the Miller maid. The act of moving and 'acting' throughout the pieces was both liberating and exacting: It deepened my understanding of the piece and shook off the potential claustrophobia of the recital form.

The second production also helped to clarify the sentiments of the Miller. I have been performing the cycle in the last few years with a hand puppet, accompanied by a classical guitar and a string ensemble. This production is designed and arranged by the Director, Tom Guthrie and accompanied by Bjarte Eike and Barokksolistene. The dual challenge of making sure the puppet is expressing every sentiment clearly, and gathering six or seven players to express the intricacies of the music at each moment demands huge focus and clarity. It does not allow the intimate freedom of a performance with a pianist but forces the performers to nail the meaning to the mast. Every time a thought or sentiment is jumbled the puppet becomes inanimate and vague, and shines a light on the inadequacies of the performer. Hans Frei (I blame Tom for the puppet's name) is a demanding boss but an extremely rewarding one.

★★★

Performances of Die Schöne Müllerin always differ. I was originally accompanied by Malcolm with all the mystifying trickery of the stream. His becalming and kind facade hiding a devil's realm of imagination and surprise. I became the willing victim of his enchanting playing, drawing me ever deeper into the cycle, unable to resist suggestion and barely able to control the emotional range he would proffer from his accompanying. Later, I teamed up with Andrew West (originally in some performances of Winterreise) and found him an equally challenging and inspiring partner through the cycle. It is a dream for a singer to be partnered by accompanists of this quality: to trust fully the pianist in a way that challenges and inspires. Freedom in performance coming from a clarity of narrative allied with a hyper-sensitive focus on what was happening in the moment. So many avenues unexplored, so many streams unruffled. There is not a single answer: it is not possible to perform the same way twice and truly be discovering what is happening at the same time.

It is this sort of freedom of expression which allows one to manage a piece of the magnitude of Die Schöne Müllerin. As long as the dialogue between the singer and the pianist is established, and both serve the story-telling, the possibilities are infinite. Of course this is a romantic point of view, and one I can not live up to in the day to day machinations of work. This is also extremely difficult in recording sessions. It is a cold environment that we do our best to make comfortable. In the first place the claustrophobia of the microphone and the lack of audience make the storytelling singular; it is difficult to reiterate what you've said to someone when no one is there to agree, disagree, encourage, cower.

The simplicity of Schubert's setting provides the performer with various interpretive challenges, especially in the strophic songs. Like interpreting the second half of a Handel aria, the options are endless. Should one share the music on the page with little interference or pull it out and radically interpret it? I like to think Andrew and I have sat somewhere on the middle with regards to this. We have attempted to keep it simple and the text and story clear, with our various experiences of the piece naturally infecting the performance.

The new recording of Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin by Robert Murray and Andrew West is released on June 3 by Stone Records. 

Robert Murray

Robert Murray studied at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne, the Royal College of Music, the National Opera Studio and was a Young Artist at the Royal Opera House (2004-6). He has performed with The Royal Opera, English National Opera, Hamburg Staatsoper, Salzburg Festival, Welsh National Opera, Opera North, Garsington Opera and Opera Holland Park.

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