After holiday celebrations are over, it's time to embrace winter's inward, contemplative nature. Franz Schubert's famous song cycle, Winterreise isa meditation on love and loss in wintertime. Its twenty-four songs form a story arc that has captivated audiences since 1828. Darren Chase sings his own English translation of the work, creating a direct connection to the music for an English-speaking audience. Michael Scales accompanies this two-man opera.
I have searched for novel ways to play
this song, but there is only one: This is a picture of the artist's place in
The symbology is undeniable. The lyre,
instrument of troubadours and angels (and icon of music publishers) is reduced
to the hurdy-gurdy, a droning mechanical copy of the heavenly instrument,
itself a centuries-old harbinger of industrialization. Just like the forgotten
coal burner's cabin in No. 10 and the Teutonic postal horn in No. 13, this
proto-industrial symbol augurs a shift toward mass production of goods and art.
Even the mystical linden tree of No. 5 is trapped just within the emerging
property lines of a totally new modernity. Müller, amplified by Schubert, is
commenting on the first stirrings of momentous societal changes.
The hurdy-gurdy's droning sound is
produced when a rotating circular bow, powered by a hand crank, revolves
underneath its strings. In this last song of the cycle, the wanderer's journey
is immortalized via the monotonous 'cycle' of the Hurdy-gurdy Man's instrument.
Does the wanderer drift into oblivion like the beggar on the ice? No, we will
sing his songs next Saturday and it won't be long until we begin again next
winter. By the time Michael Scales and I are done with this tour next April and
have recorded the music, many other singers will have started their own winter
The cumbersome words, "hurdy-gurdy
player" mean nothing to me, so I have substituted the ironic "lyre
player" whenever possible; however, my first instinct when translating the
instrument's awkward name was 'auto-lyre,' which evokes for me the childhood
image of Judy Collins playing an 'auto-harp' on Sesame Street. With one hand
she strummed its strings, with the other she pressed rectangular white buttons
labeled with the names of chords. My young brain wondered if it was a real
instrument. Ian Bostridge notes that there is a folksy Bob Dylan quality to
this song and so far, I have always ended up crooning this one. Does Schubert's
last song presage the music of the masses? What a beautiful and horrible sound.
Love to you all and see you next winter,
No. 24 The Lyre Player
There behind the village stands the lyre
And with frozen fingers he plays best he can
Barefoot on the ice he teeters here are there
And his little plate remains forever bare
No one wants to hear him, no one wants to
And the dogs are snarling at the old man's feet
And he lets it go on always as it will
Playing on his hurdy-gurdy ever still
Strange old lyre player shall I go with
Will you play lyre along with my songs too?
24. Der Leiermann
Drüben hinterm Dorfe Steht ein Leiermann
Und mit starren Fingern Dreht er was er kann.
Barfuß auf dem Eise Wankt er hin und her
Und sein kleiner Teller Bleibt ihm immer leer.
Keiner mag ihn hören, Keiner sieht ihn an,
Und die Hunde knurren Um den alten Mann.
Und er läßt es gehen, Alles wie es will,
Dreht, und seine Leier Steht ihm nimmer still.
Wunderlicher Alter ! Soll ich mit dir
Willst zu meinen Liedern Deine Leier dreh'n ?
This poem's short
declamatory phrases leave no room for repeated subjects so I changed some of
the lines to the imperative voice. This lends an encouraging feeling to the
words, as if the poet is trying to buck himself up.
solution I am stuck on the famous line "Klagen ist für Toren." The
translation must be as jarringly flippant as the original, but English phrases
fail me. "Grieving is for dimwits" is just too funny. After our last
performance on Saturday, the audience obsessed over
this one but couldn't come up with a solution. In a text message to the host of
our little Liederabend I wrote, "Figured it out: 'Kvetching's good as fish
Most importantly, the proto-Nietzschean "Will
kein Gott auf Erden sein, Sind wir selber Götter!" cannot be reduced to
"If there is no god on earth, We are gods together"; it must somehow
convey, "If there is no god on earth, Then we are gods ourselves." I
have resigned myself to the possibility that conundrums like these might not
sort themselves out until after our concert tour is over on April 2. Then we'll
get some distance before beginning again next January. I hope to have final
solutions before we record my English version next April.
No. 22 Courage
When the snow flies in your face
Shake it off and crash on
When you hear your heart's complaint
Sing a rousing glad song
Never hear what it would say
I've no ears to hear it
Leave it to feeling what it may
Grieving is for dimwits
Greeting all the world with mirth
Facing wind and weather
If there is no God on earth
We are gods together
Fliegt der Schnee mir ins Gesicht,
Schüttl' ich ihn herunter.
Wenn mein Herz im Busen spricht,
Sing' ich hell und munter.
Höre nicht, was es mir sagt,
Habe keine Ohren;
Fühle nicht, was es mir klagt,
Klagen ist für Toren.
Lustig in die Welt hinein
Gegen Wind und Wetter !
Will kein Gott auf Erden sein,
Sind wir selber Götter !
Talking to people after our last
performance I realized something about this character, the wanderer, the poet:
The man was nothing. He was a nobody, whatever that means. Being expelled from
the house of his beloved gives him meaning for the first time, wakes him up to
the signs all around him, connects him with his world. It's not pleasant but it
is uplifting because underneath every despairing image there is the joy of true
perception. I think that's why people loveto hear this music.
The key lines come here in No. 20, "The
Signpost." When the poet reaches a "Wegweiser," a sign on the
road, he asks himself, "Why do I avoid the paths of other people? What
sort of foolish desire drives me into the wastelands?" He says,
"After all, I've done nothing that forces me to avoid other people."
This 'doing nothing' says a lot. There is
a political implication in the line, as there is in many of the poems. The
post-Napoleonic government in what is now Austria had ruthlessly suppressed any
opposition to its power. I'm sure that this reference to 'not doing anything
wrong' characterizes many people who didn't, wouldn't or couldn't speak up
against the regime.
But there is also something existential here.
In No. 20 the poet has decided to take the path from which he knows he will not
return. Until now he has truly "done nothing"--not only was he a
political bystander, but up to this point everything has happened 'to' him.
From this moment on there is agency in his becoming.
No. 20 The Signpost
Why avoid the trodden pathways
Where the other wanderers walk?
I prefer a hidden passage
Over highlands' snowy rocks
I've committed no grave error
That would keep me far from man
What vain and foolish longing
Drives me far into the wastelands?
Every sign along the roadway
Shows the way to what is next.
Yet I wander ever onward
Without rest and seeking rest
And I see a signpost standing
So unmoving in my stare
It's a path that I must travel
And none return from there
20. Der Wegweiser
Was vermeid' ich denn die Wege,
Wo die ander'n Wand'rer geh'n,
Suche mir versteckte Stege,
Durch verschneite Felsenhöh'n ?
Habe ja doch nichts begangen,
Daß ich Menschen sollte scheu'n, -
Welch ein törichtes Verlangen
Treibt mich in die Wüstenei'n ?
Weiser stehen auf den Straßen,
Weisen auf die Städte zu.
Und ich wandre sonder
Maßen Ohne Ruh' und suche Ruh'.
Einen Weiser seh' ich stehen
Unverrückt vor meinem Blick;
Eine Straße muß ich gehen,
Die noch keiner ging zurück.