Schubert's song cycle is a setting of 24 poems by the German romantic poet Wilhelm Müller. They tell of a spurned lover who, leaving his beloved's home town behind, sets off through the snow and ice on a forlorn winter journey. You may know Winterreise - I have it since I was five: my grandmother would pick out some of its songs on the piano and tell me the story. But this blog doesn't depend on your ever having heard it. So read on....
I've always been intrigued by the way the work ends. You would expect the last song to be about either death or springtime. Yet the final poem in the cycle is a strange piece called 'The Hurdy-Gurdy Player', Der Leiermann. It depicts the lonely wanderer's final encounter on his hopeless journey. This is Bostridge's translation.
Over there behind the village / Stands a hurdy-gurdy man,
And with numb fingers / he grinds away, as best he can.
Barefoot on the ice / He sways back and forth,
And his little plate / Remains always empty.
No-one wants to hear him, / No-one looks at him,
And the dogs growl / Around the old man.
And he lets it go on, / Everything, just as it will;
Turns the wheel, and his hurdy-gurdy / Never stays still for one moment.
Strange old man, / Should I go with you?
Will you to my songs / Play your hurdy-gurdy?
After the emotional complexity of the earlier songs, this one is artlessly simple. The stanzas are repetitive, without much variation or adornment, as if the wanderer's warm beating heart is being frozen lifeless by the icy cold and blank despair - the first a recurring metaphor of the second throughout these songs. And there the cycle ends - or maybe, simply stops, for in no sense is this a conclusion of the agonised journey that has led up to it.
What do the hurdy-gurdy man and the wanderer's encounter with him symbolise?
Bostridge explores some of the ways in which Leiermann has been read. He could be an image of death, beckoning to the wanderer to succumb to the inevitable, which has been foreshadowed earlier in the cycle, and which to some extent he has already been longing for. Or he could be a symbol of the musical wanderer himself: no longer the performer at an elegant salon or 'Schubertiad' but a despised street musician dully, mechanically, churning out tunes for whoever cares to stop and listen; like Flaubert's 'cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars'. At this edge of unreason, the songs we have been listening to for over an hour turn out to be parodied as no more than the mindless turning of the hurdy-gurdy handle. In the end, the singer is faced with who he truly is: an unwelcome, unloved, disfigured outcaste.
But is it outlandish to see another more theological trope in this strange, alien figure, an image of the Christ who is every wanderer's journey's end?
It's true that there is nothing explicit in the songs to suggest this. But I'm not so much interested in what the poet or composer 'meant' (how would we ever know?) but how we 'read' the piece today. To me, the symbolism of this ending is powerful. In the previous 23 songs, the traveller has been drawn into many different worlds suggested by his dreams, memories, endless introspection, reveries, and experiences of natural phenomena that in his fevered romantic imagination, come to stand as images of the self. There have been only fleeting encounters with living, breathing creatures, let alone with other human beings. This all underlines his terrible solitariness in a freezing lifeless landscape, the familiar romantic image of having loved and lost.
But in this last song, he meets another man. The Leiermann is a complete wreck of a person, yet his very disfigurement and exclusion from human society recall the degraded victim of Isaiah who was 'despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief'. In the passion narrative of the gospels, this is how the suffering of Jesus is described; he is crucified 'outside a city wall', banished from human society, cast out, accursed.
This kind of language has been used by the theologian Rene Girard in his study of the scapegoat. He suggests that 'mimesis' lies at the heart of the familiar human transactions that isolate individuals who are made to carry on behalf of everyone else the negative projections of people unable to live with their unwanted dysfunction. Victims of oppression or bullying often carry symbolic meaning for those who perpetrate cruelty for reasons that are not always consciously understood. The 'scapegoat' is then banished from society as an accursed figure who will carry those split-off aspects of the self into a far country where they need no longer cause trouble. In classical language, the scapegoat 'bears the sin of many' by removing it to a safe place.
If the hurdy-gurdy man is a symbolic scapegoat, he may turn out to hold redemptive significance for the wanderer as his winter journey comes to a close. Here is one exile confronting another; one kind of despair recognising its mirror image in the other person. On the desperate margins of existence, there is a solidarity in their isolation. At long last, the singer has found a kinsman, 'bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh'. He is not alone in his music-making any longer. So, from speaking about him, the wanderer finally addresses him directly. 'Strange old man, should I go with you? Will you to my songs play your hurdy-gurdy?' A new relationship is formed, a new community.
I know: it's a pretty desperate answer to the wanderer's question. What, if anything, happens next? After these 24 stations of death, will there be a resurrection? Are these two alienated characters, the wanderer and the hurdy-gurdy player, changed by their strange meeting? Is there so much as a hint that spring might come at last?
Bostridge writes about what often happens in the concert hall as the last note dies away at the end of a performance of this work. There is a long silence that indicates how deep the audience's own involvement with it has been, then only tentative applause to begin with, as if, like a religious work, you aren't quite sure if you are supposed to applaud or not. The response of audiences to Bach's Passions is similar, as : maybe the song cycle is Schubert's highly personalised version of the passion story. A mark of great art is that it has a cathartic, redemptive, dimension, not just because of its beauty but because of the depth of insight with which it interprets its subject matter. Somehow, we know that this winter's journey is about each of us: Winterreise is our journey too, in whatever aspect of life we feel it: our disappointment in love, our loss of hope, our bereavement, our identification with the pain and sorrow of a suffering world. This is its capacity to open doors to a genuinely spiritual experience, even for those who don't think of themselves as 'religious' people.
On the surface, the cycle seems unremittingly bleak. But the passion analogy may suggest meanings that are not so hopeless after all. The Good Friday lament, 'Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?' invites us to stop, pay attention and reflect in front of an image of human suffering. To bystanders, the crucifixion must have seemed to be an event without purpose, just another death like all the others. This bafflement is reflected in the way the death of Jesus is recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. The innocent sufferer dies in godforsaken dereliction: 'my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?' This passion is absurd; what possible significance could it have? It is only on profound reflection that the victim's story, like the scapegoat, begins to gather meaning.
So while the companionship between these two lost souls in exile, wanderer and hurdy-gurdy man, looks like a bitter irony on human love and belonging, the final question-mark in the poem puts it in a different light. And the song's concluding chord, unresolved but not hopeless, offers a clue that despair has not had the last word after all.