Dynamic music duo

Baritone David Behnke and pianist David Rhoderick bring us Franz Schubert’s “Die schöne Müllerin.”

Baritone David Behnke, left, and pianist David Rhoderick rehearse for their upcoming performance. —Paul Doherty

The musical duo of baritone David Behnke and pianist David Rhoderick are at it again. On Sunday, Jan. 14, at 3 pm, they will be performing Franz Schubert’s “Die schöne Müllerin” (the Beautiful Miller Girl) at the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury as part of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society’s expansion to providing year-round classical music for the Island community.

I spoke with Behnke recently about their upcoming performance, their process, and the piece, which is celebrating its 200th anniversary.

“‘Die schöne Müllerin’ was part of the blossoming of Schubert’s mature period. He was about 26 when he wrote it, and by 31, he was dead,” Behnke says. In the realm of classical music, the piece became the first of the major German song cycles — a series of poems, in this case by Wilhelm Müller — performed together and set to music.

“‘Die schöne Müllerin’ is a product of its time,” Behnke says. “It oozes 19th century Romanticism — the period that gave us ‘Faust’ and all the other great, angst-driven lives of romantic young men falling into unrequited love, usually ending up killing themselves. People at the time really ate that up.”

The 20 songs tell the story of a young man who falls in love with the miller’s beautiful daughter. He starts out wandering through the countryside, stumbles on a stream, which he begins to follow, and soon spies a beautiful young girl who, as the miller’s daughter, is above his station as a lowly journeyman. During the cycle, he goes from smitten, innocent young love to frustration when he can’t decide if she’s responding to him, then to frustration and anger when he realizes she is not, and instead falls for his nemesis, the hunter. He stews on that for a while, and then sinks into deep despair and melancholy. Finally, the young man comes to a level of resignation, and drowns himself in the brook, which sings a lullaby to the boy afterward that is heart-wrenchingly beautiful.

In fact, the brook is at the core of the cycle, and anthropomorphized into a living creature. It starts out friendly, and then its role becomes a little iffier. “By the end, and Schubert leaves it unresolved, you don’t know if it’s all in the boy’s imagination and it’s just a brook, or a malevolent creature that all along has been leading him to his death, or a benign spirit that witnesses his suffering and comforts him right to the end. Probably all of those things, but it makes you, as a performer, stop and think constantly about the interaction between the two, which is far more dominant and deep than that between the boy and girl,” Behnke says.

Just as the boy and the brook have sophisticated interaction, so too does the role of the piano in the piece. “Die schöne Müllerin” is one of the first great German lieder, where the piano is not there just to support the singer, but a partnership and dialogue between the singer and pianist that makes the music come alive. Throughout the work, the voice and piano share equally in expressing the poetry’s emotions, with the piano providing a lush sonic background of nature’s sounds to accompany the young man’s emotions. “It is not merely an accompaniment,” Behnke says. “Schubert demands that the piano carry the biggest burden for the subtlety and nuances. It’s constantly imitating a brook, lute, or hunter in its figuration and melodies — they come alive in the playing.”

Rhoderick and Behnke began working on the piece in early summer. “We came up with joint interpretations and decisions about how something should go, or what particular passages need to convey, which I think makes both of our performances richer,” Behnke says.

He explains that “Die schöne Müllerin” is not vocally challenging in the way you think of opera being, but rather in trying to convey the story and emotion, particularly to a non-German-speaking audience. “Although there will be translations so you can read along, that doesn’t let me off the hook, knowing what each poem is saying so that even if they aren’t reading, the audience will get the feeling.”

This is not the first time Behnke has performed the piece. He was initially attracted to “Die schöne Müllerin” some 50 years ago, because of the challenge of doing something big and important. “I was probably a freshman in college and starting to take German, so there was a natural connection. And of course, there was the story. I was about 19 years old, and that arc of love and pathos is pretty exciting stuff. You fall in love, and it doesn’t work out, and it’s horrible. The difference is that then they were all pretty much hypothetical thoughts and feelings. Looking back now, your own life has had great ups and great downs, and, therefore, it takes on new meaning.

“Now I’m attracted to it because of the emotional content and universality of human emotions we all go through.”

By the end, Behnke says, you are not physically tired, but emotionally exhausted. “If you really throw yourself into the story, you’ve got these huge, emotional ups, if you’re riding the wave, and these huge, despairing lows. And at the end, I want the audience to be as exhausted and at peace as I am.”

“Die schöne Müllerin” (The Beautiful Miller Girl) by Franz Schubert (1797–1828), performed by David Behnke, baritone, and David Rhoderick on the piano. Sunday, Jan. 14, 3 pm, at the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury. Tickets will be sold at the door. The suggested donation is $30, but you don’t have to pay to attend.