There are three usual candidates brought up when people talk about the saddest piece of music ever written: Mozart’s wind serenades (particularly the ‘Gran Partita’), the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathetique’ symphony, and this cycle of songs by Franz Schubert. Of the three, this is the one I’d nominate as the winner of that prize. Mozart’s serenades are too peaceful and wistful to really qualify as despairing; they express unutterable sadness, true, but they seem to understand it and come to terms with it. Tchaikovsky’s final symphony movement certainly has the despair part down (it is, after all, the last artistic testament of a man who may or may not have committed suicide shortly thereafter), but its openly weeping melody lacks the quiet nuances of sorrow Schubert was able to express in this work.
This piece, like Schubert’s earlier work in the same vein Die schöne Müllerin, is essentially an unstaged tragic Opera for one singer. At the very least, it corresponds to Opera the way the great concept-album Rock Operas of our own day correspond to Musical Theater. It was based on a cycle of twenty-four poems by Wilhelm Müller, whose work had already provided the text for Die schöne Müllerin. These poems, like Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, dealt with the intersection between romantic heartbreak and existential despair (it was a very popular theme in European literature at the time, especially in Germany). Indeed, although not actually based on Goethe’s work, this song cycle does a much more effective job of musicalizing Goethe’s theme than the actual Werther opera by Jules Massenet.
These poems were incredibly depressing to begin with (example: in one the narrator finds a graveyard and wishes to join the dead there, but ruefully observes “there was no room at the inn”). But Schubert’s contribution takes their sadness to a whole new level of eloquence and depth. Some songs, like the first, “Gute Natch” (‘Good Night’), are calm and solemn, even stately, but with an ocean of sadness suggested under the surface. Others, like “Die Wetterfahne” (‘The Weathervane’), are angry and palpably bitter, the narrator cursing the world for what it has done to him. Still others, like “Der Lindenbaum” (‘The Linden Tree’), are full of heartwrenching longing for past happiness that cannot be reclaimed. There is even one desperately upbeat song, “Mut!” (‘Courage!’), sung by the narrator in a futile attempt to raise his spirit. Throughout, the songs feature Schubert’s legendary gift for sheer melody, but with a depth of sorrow he never approached anywhere else in his work.
And while Die schöne Müllerin at least ended with the catharsis of an operatic suicide, this cycle concludes with its most haunting song of all, “Der Leiermann” (‘The Organ-Grinder’), as the narrator encounters the haunting image of an ignored, penniless organ grinder still relentlessly cranking his instrument. This is sadder than any tragic Opera I know of, partly because it deliberately denies the listener any real catharsis. That said, I hope my description of its almost infinite sadness has not convinced any of my readers that this work is not worth listening to, because for all its sorrow, this is still one of the greatest pieces of music ever written and one everyone really should hear before they die.