Ways of Dying

Questions of verisimilitude often hang over Schubert and Willhelm Müller’s Die schöne Müllerin. Is it all the fabric of a dream, a fantasy on a tragic love (as suggested by the final poem’s references to sleep)? Or does it seek to portray, on the other hand, a fictive but true movement from life to death? Through his music Schubert preserves some of the ambiguity, notably in the final, glistening, first inversion chord, whilst at the same time compelling us to be moved, drawing us into empathy, with the idea of such fragile, self-absorbed, even neurotic (from a modern perspective) love. The pastoral, carefree image of the cycle in comparison to the bleached existentialism of Die Wintereisse is belied when one considers its programme, which describes a shocking arc of life to death, from innocence to a sudden and bleak end, which such arc is hinted at by the poetic enormity of Schubert’s intimate music. The only option is to understand that the cycle presents a Sturm-und-Drang attitude to life, an all or nothing romanticism which reads into even the smallest glance momentous condemnation, which portrays a campness, even a self-fulfilling campness, that yet transfigures in the brook’s final song into a sort of radiance that shows the transience of all such attitudes, and of all things.


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