Last Thursday night, The TU School of Music’s “Concerts with Commentary” series continued with a performance of Franz Schubert’s 1824 song cycle “Die schöne Müllerin.” As I entered the Meinig Recital Hall, I immediately noticed that the venue was close to full, and an extra row of chairs was being placed at the front to accommodate the high attendance.
“Die schöne Müllerin,” translated to “The Lovely Mill-Maiden,” is based on the writings of German poet Wilhelm Müller. The work tells the story of a wandering musician who falls in love with a young girl. His love is not reciprocated by the girl, who is instead attracted to a hunter, leading the wanderer to drown himself in the brook that led him to the girl.
This story, with plenty of intricacies that I didn’t detail here, is told in a series of 20 short pieces. The work was written and performed in German, but English translations were provided with the program. The pieces showcase a full range of emotions and levels of intensity. One track may feel joyous and triumphant, while the next song can analyze the same situation or symbol with a much more somber tone.
These emotions were expertly portrayed in TU’s performance of Schubert’s work. The work only features a piano and a single vocalist, roles filled by Brady McElligott and Dr. Kim Childs, respectively. McElligott and Childs are both professors of music at TU, and their expertise was evident throughout the course of the concert.
McElligott’s piano performance was impressive, to say the least. The piano music Schubert wrote doesn’t feel like a simple background accompaniment, but acts as a partner in the process with its own humor, personality and moments in the spotlight. McElligott portrayed all of these intricacies beautifully, being able to shift seamlessly between quick repetitions of chords into slower melodic moments as the song cycle called for it. Often, the piano had an introduction before the vocals began, and he was able to convey the emotion of each piece before Childs came in.
Speaking of Childs, his tenor sounded clear and expressive throughout the song cycle. Even in repeating the same line, Childs would once sing in full voice and once hold back and sing in a softer voice, giving the line a different feeling each time. Often, his body would move and sway with the music, presumably to give him more control over his voice, but it also meant the audience’s eyes were drawn to him throughout the work.
I don’t speak German, but judging from what I have heard, Childs’ diction sounded like a crisp and accurate pronunciation of the language. Following the vocals with the provided translations, the emotions contained in Müller’s poetry were clearly conveyed. As the wanderer goes through his journey of love and rejection, so does Childs, with masterful precision.
The concert as a whole was relatively short, lasting just barely over an hour. Despite this, the event didn’t feel rushed, and it meant Schubert’s song cycle certainly didn’t overstay its welcome, instead moving through the story at a steady pace. Unfortunately, part of the reason the event moved quickly was because the commentary wasn’t integrated into the performance. Instead, along with the program was a front-and-back page of commentary on the creation, themes, and symbols of the song cycle. Reading the commentary after the work made me appreciate things that I didn’t recognize while listening to the cycle, which makes me wish even more that it was a more integrated part of the experience.
After the concert, Dr. Childs explained that the commentary was placed on paper because past events in the series had run long due to extended segments of commentary on the works. This decision worked for “Die schöne Müllerin,” as it is one continuous song cycle, so it was nice to not have long interruptions between pieces.
However, the commentary going mostly unacknowledged in the event itself left me feeling a bit disappointed. Of course, running long isn’t a desired outcome, but perhaps just giving small snippets of the commentary or pointing out things on the sheet that are relevant to the next piece would help integrate the two elements while keeping the event on time. Despite this issue, the music was very enjoyable, and perhaps later events in the series will try different strategies to integrate its two major components.