Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Der Leiermann by Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Der Leiermann which is alternately translated either as "The Organ Grinder" or as "The Hurdy-Gurdy Man" is the final song in a 24-song cycle called Winterreise (Winter Journey). Though one might consider the song cycle more "atmospheric" there is a fairly loose plot: A young man (more of an anti-hero, than hero) travels to an idyllic town during the month of May. There he is invited to live with a family and falls in love with their daughter, who he believes returns his love. However, in true Romantic era fashion, one cannot remain happy! She ditches him to marry a wealthy guy who is approved of by her family. In despair and in the dead of winter, our young anti-hero departs and begins a painful journey full of longing for his previous happiness, forshadowings of death (a raven), and finally arrives at another town. The song cycle ends on a bleak note.

Over there beyond the village
Stands an organ-grinder,
And with numb fingers
He plays as best he can.

Barefoot on the ice,
He totters here and there,
And his little plate
Is always empty.

No one listens to him,
No one notices him,
And the dogs growl
Around the old man.

And he just lets it happen,
As it will,
Plays, and his hurdy-gurdy
Is never still.

Strange old man,
Shall I go with you ?
Will you play your organ
To my songs

I was introduced to the song cycle through this final song in an analysis class I took while working on my doctorate. The music is as bleak as the words and fits it perfectly. It follows a strict strophic form (same music for each stanza), which one would expect when you envision an organ grinder playing the same music over and over again.

Here's a beautiful version done by Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake. They've done the WHOLE song cycle this way and they're all amazing to watch.

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