Der Leiermann – The Organ-grinder

The title of this post is the name of a Franz Schubert composition and a poem by somebody called Wilhelm Mueller that I simply love. I came across the song in the movie ‘In Bruges’. The poem itself is in German, and I had to find a translation to understand the words; but the music is so appropriate to the mood of the poem that one almost doesn’t have to. The music is haunting and simple, and captures the sheer melancholy, the starkness, of the emotion in the poem that is so gripping.

Wilhelm Müller:

Der Leiermann

Drüben hinterm Dorfe
Steht ein Leiermann,
Und mit starren Fingern
Dreht er, was er kann.

Barfuß auf dem Eise
Schwankt er hin und her;
Und sein kleiner Teller
Bleibt ihm immer leer.

Keiner mag ihn hören,
Keiner sieht ihn an;
Und die Hunde brummen
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 gehn?
Willst zu meinen Liedern
Deine Leier drehn?

Wilhelm Müller:

The Organ-Grinder

Way behind the hamlet
stands an organ man
and with freezing fingers
grinds the best he can.

Barefoot on the snowbank
swaying to and fro –
and his little plate has
ne’er a coin to show.

No-one comes to listen,
no-one comes to greet,
and the dogs are growling
at the old man’s feet.

And he lets it happen,
lets it as it will –
cranking – and his organ
never staying still.

Strangest of the Ancients,
must I walk with you?
Will you grind my Lieders
on your organ, too?

There are several renditions of the song by tenors. All the ones I’ve heard are good. Find the ones by Andreas Schmidt, Thomas Quasthoff, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

I found the translation of this and another poem, along with an essay on Schubert’s passion for his work, and much else besides, on this website. I’ve copied the translation to ‘Der Leiermann’ here, but please do go to the original website for everything else.

12 thoughts on “Der Leiermann – The Organ-grinder”

  1. does the word grind really suit this song? wouldn’t it be nice to play a song on an organ than grid it? how can you find nothing wrong with the way of things 😐 (sarcasm intended)

  2. ‘Grind’ does oddly suit the mood of the poem, doesn’t it? Some other people have translated ‘Leiermann’ to ‘hurdy-gurdy man’. Although I don’t think ‘grind’ here has any connotation other than how this particular musical instrument is played.

  3. “drehen” is a German verb meaning “to turn”. “Leier” means Hurdy-Gurdy, and a Hurdy-Gurdy is played by means of a hand crank . So……… I think that “grind” is incorrect and “turn” fits the poem perfectly.

  4. One word in the German version is wrong, it’s written “und die Hunde brummen…” but that’s wrong. The right version would be “und die Hunde knurren…“. “Brummen” is the sound that bees are making=)

  5. I beleive the leier or drehleier is what we call a “hurdy gurdy in english. This is a stringed musical instrument that produces sound by a crank-turned rosined wheel rubbing against the strings. It is not an accordion but it is a similar idea where a street performer can make a lot of sound with little effort and still be able to sing along with the music.

  6. I recommend that you give a listen to the version with Hans Hotter singing and Gerald Moore on piano. No other singing performance has ever affected me as much.

  7. I have found a different translation to the last verse:

    Strange old man,
    Shall I walk with you?
    Will you grind your organ
    To my songs too?

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