The hurdy-gurdy in Schubert's "Winterreise"

Exploring musical instruments in Schubert's song cycle


For the month of April, we focus on the beginning of spring. Or more accurately, the end of winter. Or more accurately still, the end of "Winterreise" ("Winter's Journey"): Schubert's song cycle, which he wrote towards the very end of his life and the instrument that features in it.

The very last song of Schubert's song cycle is "Der Leiermann" ("The hurdy-gurdy man"). In the song, the narrator describes an old man, ignored by everyone, who never stops turning the wheel of his hurdy-gurdy.

The narrator asks himself if this hurdy-gurdy is the accompaniment to his own life: alienated and unchanging. At the beginning of the song, you can hear that the piano accompaniment provides an imitation of the hurdy-gurdy: in reality this is a droning sound, made by rotating a wheel against a string.

There are many examples of hurdy-gurdys in Europeana Music and you can see a select gallery of them here. We also have different recordings of Schubert's song cycle and different versions of the sheet music; and, also, there are many depictions on Europeana Art of the hurdy-gurdy player, who is often a blind beggar such as in David Vinckboon's painting below.

Music Schubert Rijksmuseum Winter hurdy-gurdy Winterreise