It was around 1820 that a twenty-something Prussian named Wilhelm Müller, survivor of several battles in the uprising against Napoleon, managed to publish a set of about two dozen lyrical poems called Die Schöne Müllerin (which translates to The Lovely Maid of the Mill). The poems describe a shy, young miller's apprentice whose unrequited passion for the miller's daughter leads him to such despair that he takes his own life. Within three years, most of the poems were set to music by Franz Schubert, also twenty-something at the time, as a song cycle to be performed by one pianist and one singer participating equally as partners.
I first heard about Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin song cycle from German professors at the University of Tennessee in the 1970's. Their praise was so distinctive that, approximately four decades later, I found myself forking out $68 for a seat in the next-to-last row of a side balcony at Princeton's McCarter Theater to hear a rare performance of these songs by
tenor Jonas Kaufmann and pianist Helmut Deutsch. And I did not regret it; although Kaufmann and Deutsch have a very good CD of this song cycle out, they have continued to refine and deepen their understanding and presentation of the songs and have gone beyond even their own CD. Jonas Kaufmann performed at the pinnacle of what is humanly possible, and so did Helmut Deutsch in his tender and responsive framing of the songs with the piano.
And oh my God, Franz Schubert and the dissonances and the sly changing from major to minor, and all the rest of the tricks of a composer's trade that I might not even know about--all this has kept these lieder popular for nearly 200 years. And I think they might go another 200 years if the world survives. And never, in all this time before or after, has any performance been better than this one was. For what it's worth, it contained rare and precious moments of perfection so that even people who needed to cough were unable to cough, unable hardly to breathe at the time.