Schubert set 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller in this dark and brooding collection of songs, most of them in the minor key. The theme throughout is that of despair. The songs tell the story of a young man, spurned in love and feeling that he is an outsider who doesn’t fit into everyday social intercourse. The notes to my CD describe the protagonist of the songs as a “lovesick monomaniac, driven out by overwhelming emotional frustration into the hostile, frostbound winter landscape, where he staggers misanthropically towards destruction.” (Karl Schumann.)
And yet listening to this music doesn’t make me sad. It’s beautiful and profound and passionate. This is music from the heart and it speaks to anyone who has ever felt a bit lonely or who has struggled to fit in. Schubert himself is supposed to have described the songs as “dreadful”, in the sense that they excite dread.
In the first song, Gute Nacht, (Good Night) the young man, his heart broken, sets off into the night. His steps are marked out in the left hand of the piano in relentless, plodding quavers as he makes his way, ignoring the howling of stray dogs, his own shadow in the moonlight as his only companion.
A stranger I came,
a stranger I go again.
May favoured me
with many a bunch of flowers.
The girl spoke of love,
her mother even of marriage –
now the world is so gloomy,
the path shrouded in snow.
(Wilhelm Müller, translated by Robert Jordan.)
In have chosen this recording by the wonderful Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, accompanied by Murray Perahia. I hope you enjoy it, and good night!