"Der Leiermann" ("The Hurdy-Gurdy Man") is the final song of Franz Schubert's "Winterreise" (Winter's Journey) song cycle. The 1955 edition of The Record Guide described it as "the greatest song-cycle ever composed."
By 1827, Franz Schubert's health was deteriorating because of syphilis, and he composed Winterreise knowing he was a dying man. The text comprises poems by the German lyric poet Wilhelm Müller that tell a gloomy tale of unrequited love; the songs depicting the poet as the lover.
The song cycle starts with the grief-stricken young man discovering that his beloved has found someone else, so he quietly leaves her house and embarks on a lonely journey, traveling through an icy landscape towards an unknown destination where he encounters the "Hurdy-Gurdy Man." The score echoes Schubert's awareness of his own approaching fate, knowing he was on his own final journey.
Schubert composed "Der Leiermann" in October 1827. It depicts a derelict street musician playing a hurdy-gurdy in the cold winter, cranking his instrument with frozen fingers. His begging bowl is empty, no one is listening, and dogs growl at him, but he continues playing.
Strange old man. Shall I come with you?
Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to accompany my songs?
Many music scholars have interpreted the mysterious and ominous nature of the musician as representing Death himself, ready to take the heartbroken young man.
Shortly after completing "Winterreise," Schubert invited a group of friends to his lodgings for a private performance and was reputed to have said, "I will sing through a cycle of dreadful songs for you. I am curious to see what you think of them. I've been more affected by them than has been the case with other songs. They please me more than all of them and they will yet please you too."
They affected him so much that Schubert's last task in life was the correction of the proofs for part 2 of "Winterreise," including "Der Leiermann."
Schubert died aged 31 on November 19, 1828. He lived long enough to have heard the whole cycle performed by his friend, the baritone singer Johann Michael Vogl.
In 2000, the Swedish synthpop/industrial band Covenant recorded an electronic version of "Der Leiermann." Released as a standalone single, it was sung to the tune of their album track "Like Tears in Rain."
The English singer-songwriter Donovan
recorded a different song
about a player of the stringed instrument. Released in 1968, his psychedelic tune tells the story of the eponymous "hurdy gurdy man" visiting him in his dreams, "singing songs of love."