Die schöne Müllerin is performed by a pianist and a solo singer. The vocal part falls in the range of a tenor or soprano voice, but is often sung by other voices, transposed to a lower range. Since the story of the cycle is about a young man, the work is most often sung by men. The piano part bears much of the expressive burden of the work, and is only seldom a mere "accompaniment" to the singer.
A typical performance lasts around sixty to seventy minutes.
Müller's poems were published in 1820, and Schubert set most of them to music between May and September of 1823, while he was also writing his opera Fierabras. He was 26 years old at the time. Schubert omitted several of the poems, such as a prologue and an epilogue delivered by the poet. The work was published in 1824 under the title Die schöne Müllerin, ein Zyklus von Liedern, gedichtet von Wilhelm Müller, which means, "The lovely maid of the mill, a song cycle to poems by Wilhelm Müller".
The cycle is occasionally referred to as the "Müllerlieder," the Müller songs, a term used by the composer once in a letter. This is not especially useful nomenclature, since Schubert's later and equally celebrated song cycle Winterreise is also to poems by Müller.
There are twenty songs in the cycle, around half in simple strophic form, and they move from cheerful optimism to despair and tragedy. At the beginning of the cycle, a young man wanders happily through the countryside. He comes upon a brook, which he follows to a mill. He falls in love with a beautiful girl who works there, the "beautiful mill-girl" of the title. He tries to impress her, but her response seems tentative. The young man is soon supplanted in her affections by a hunter clad in green, the colour of a ribbon he gave the girl. In his anguish he experiences an obsession with the colour green, then an extravagant death fantasy in which flowers sprout from his grave to express his undying love (see Adelaide (Beethoven) for a similar fantasy). In the end, the young man despairs and drowns himself in the brook. The last number is a lullaby sung by the brook.
The Diabelli first edition of 1830 is available in a beautiful facsimile score, with notes by Walther Durr, published (1996) by Bärenreiter The version in most common use is the Peters Edition, edited by Max Friedlaender, and in this and several other editions (e.g. Schirmer) the cycle is presented as the first 20 songs of Volume 1. There are versions in the original (high) keys, and transposed alternatives for lower voices. The Peters edition was recently revised by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elmar Budde, and is available as Volume 1 of the Peters Urtext Edition , available in high, medium and low key versions. The most recent scholarly edition is in the New Schubert Edition, again edited by Walther Durr and published by Bärenreiter This also offers transposed versions for lower voices. Online, there is a Schubertline (digital) edition which presents the songs in the original keys, but allows transposition to any other keys. The cycle has also been arranged for voice and guitar in an edition by Schott
(Title translations from the International edition)