Der Leiermann, a setting by Wilhelm Müller , was composed by Franz Schubert in 1827 and published in 1828. It is the twenty fourth and final lied of his song cycle, Winterreise.
Many consider Winterreise (Winter travel), written by Schubert, as one of the most important and breathtaking song cycle ever written (24 songs are part of it). For the first time, the words were set, giving equal importance to the vocal line and the piano part (later Schumann will compose in the same way).
Schubert had already set another of his major song cycles, die schöne Müllerin, earlier in 1823 on an ensemble of poems by Wilhelm Müller. Müller, an early romantic German poet, probably never met Schubert and, for sure, never heard Schubert’s Winterreise as he died in 1827.
Schubert, aged 31 at the time of the composition, is dying from syphilis and feels drawn to what the poems express: solitude, discouragement, memories of long gone happiness, non-reciprocated love. Unknown in Vienna where he is living at the time, extremely lonely and unsuccessful, he composes his most sad song cycle: all hope is illusion and the only outcome of the journey and of winter will be death. Schubert, as often, intended his work for a tenor, but the drama and despair expressed in the song cycle often led baritones and basses to perform it instead.
Der Leiermann is the twenty fourth and final lied of Winterreise. The song cycle achieves such unity it seems relevant to learn about the songs that precede it. A stranger must leave in cold winter, in the dead of the night. He had found love but she now rejects him and he leaves thinking of her (Gute Nacht, N.1). In Wetterfahne, N.2, the house of the one he loved creaks in the wind as if making fun of him. She doesn’t care about his suffering and is now a wealthy bride. In Gefrorne Tränen, N.3, the narrator realizes he has been crying, his tears freezing one after the other. In the following lied, Erstarrung, N.4, he looks for her footprints but is left with nothing to remember her, except his pain. The Linden tree calls out for him, promising him rest and peace but he turns away (Der Lindenbaum, N.5). He hopes that the brook will bring back his tears to the one he loves (Wasserflut, N.6). In Auf dem Flusse, N. 7, he tries to carve a memorial to their love in the frozen stream. In Rückblick, N.8, our narrator accelerates his pace, trying to set the most distance possible between him and the place where he was betrayed. Irricht, N.9, is centered around a desperate belief: every sorrow reaches its grave while Rast, N.10, focuses on the exhaustion the narrator is experiencing. Finally, in Frühlingstraum, N.11, a moment of rest is offered to the listener when the remembrance of spring is revived, contrasted with the violence of the present winter. In Einsamkeit, N.12, the stillness of the outside world is resented and the narrator expresses the need for harmony between his feelings and Nature. Following this song is Die Post, N.13, where the post horn makes an appearance but no letter arrives for our narrator. In der greise Kopf, N.14, deception, once more, is the outcome when he realizes his hair is deceivingly white with snow and he is still young and far away from the grave while in Die Krähe, N.15, the narrator welcomes the crow constantly following him and wishes farewell to the last of hopes in Letzte Hoffnung, N.16. Im Dorfe, N.17, sets the separation between him, forever alone and the other men and the raging storm figures the pain and need for revenge that is filling his heart (Der stürmische Morgen, N.18). In Täuschung, N.19, illusion is the only thing our narrator is left with and for moment he indulges in it. However, time has come to walk towards death (Der Wegweiser, N.20) and on his way, he meets a graveyard (Das Wirtshaus, N.21). Mut!, N.22, will be the last moment of revolt of our narrator on his morbid path before madness (Die Nebensonnen, N. 23).
Der Leiermann ends the cycle on an atmosphere of terror and darkness. The piano accompaniment seems to replicate the sound of the hurdy-gurdy the old man is playing with a double pedal of fifths repeated throughout the piece. The vocal line is set as a quasi-recitative, no real melody can be found. This song seems to go nowhere (no modulations, no direction to the vocal line) and the constant repetition generates a hypnotic sensation as if the music had frozen. The narrator is standing on the edge of emptiness, still singing, imploring amid the cracks of silence. No one answers him and, as the music stops, silence and death seem to have united.