Schubert's most recognized contribution to the musical canon was not merely his revolutionary approach to song, but his combination of vitally connected songs into cycles, as exemplified in his two cycles on texts by Wilhelm Müller, Die Schöne Müllerin in 1823, and Die Winterreise in 1827. "A frown from fortune," speculated Schubert scholar Richard Capell in 1928, "and Die Schöne Müllerin might have been but another of those rambling tales, extended beyond every lyrical propriety, with which Schubert now and again, as cannot be disguised, has fairly bored us. Thanks to Müller, it was something quite different -- new, and endlessly engaging. The all-important advantage is that the interruptions in the recital afford a succession of new standpoints in time: a drama is revealed to us in a series of lyrical moments." One need not accept Capell's perfunctory and unforgiving generalizations of Schubert's output in order to realize that, with Die Schöne Müllerin, Schubert found a way to reconcile -- in an extraordinary and synergistic fashion -- his gift for poignant melody with the demands of large-scale form.
Still, there is something paradoxical in the last phrase of Capell's argument, which appears to admit as a plus what elsewhere seems a minus: that the moments themselves, rather than creating a finely crafted composite with a constructional integrity approaching Beethoven, are just so poignant as to make listeners oblivious to any weaknesses in the musical, poetic, and semantic macrocosm. Resonating with this view is a common reaction to Schubert's instrumental works -- that the Unfinished Symphony, for example, is made up of a considerable variety of tunes, each of an impressive quality, disqualifying as pedantic any attempt to analyze their arrangements and relationships. Perhaps realizing that, depending on the text's level of semantic generality, his approach as a composer may lack consistency, Schubert used the recurring images in Müller's texts (the flow of the stream, the orbit of the mill wheel) to serve as a kind of unifying semantic space, within which his miraculous "lyrical moments" can occur.
The first of the song cycle's texts quickly establishes the anxiously and sometimes uneasily circular paths the 20 songs will take, and one can immediately suspect that this will not be a narrative of events so much as an exploration of certain recurring, expressive modes: "To wander is the millers joy...to wander, to wander, to wander...." The bipartite strophic nature of the song resonates with the metaphorically circular images of the text: the water running through its eternal course; the wheel outside the mill, set in motion by the water's current; the millstones inside the mill, translating the water's endless wandering.
Strophic forms reflect these recurring symbols while allowing for a surprising range of expression. In "Die Liebe Farbe," for example, an entirely strophic (repeated) melody accompanies three verses of texts with widely varying effects. In the first, the speaker tells of the green adornments he shall don to please his love, since green is her favorite color. In the second verse, the subject is a hunter "hieing across the meadows," presumably in hunter's green. Listeners are left to assume that the hunter has stolen the speaker's love, for in the last verse, the green he shall wear is the green grass atop his grave. The once sprightly melody has now been transformed, without any apparent musical means, into the voice of irony and bitterness (underscoring Schubert's rumored opinion that there is no such thing as truly "happy music"). By looking to the text for cohesion, Schubert finds even more expressive possibilities in the music itself.