The hurdy gurdy

April 24 2008

“In a crowded English or French or German railway carriage of the later nineteenth century, it would have aroused far less hostility to have jeered at God than to have jeered at one of those strange beings, England, France or Germany. … (Yet in the background of the consciousness of the world, waiting as silence and moonlight wait above the flares and shouts, the hurdy-gurdys and quarrels of a village fair, is the knowledge that all mankind is one brotherhood, that God is the universal and impartial Father of mankind, and that only in that universal service can mankind find peace, or peace be found for the troubles of the individual soul.)”

This is HG Wells. The language is pure Wells, but the sentiment in the parenthesis is not obviously Wellsian, and is more Toynbeean. It’s from an early edition of the Outline of History and from the time of what Wells called his “theological excursion”. Wells removed the passage from later editions. It’s quoted in Christopher Isherwood, Exhumations, 1966.

It suggests a Chagall. Why does Wells refer to a hurdy gurdy? Why is the drone of a hurdy gurdy associated with emotional or spiritual dissonances, a juxtaposition of ordinary life with something remote? Schubert’s song-cycle Die Winterreise (poems by Wilhelm Müller) ends with Der Leiermann, The Hurdy Gurdy Man. The desolated protagonist listens to the old man’s drone and watches his actions both ultra-intently and from a vast emotional distance.

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 geh’n?
Willst zu meinen Liedern deine Leier dreh’n?

I am now playing the recording of Prégardien and Staier.

When Mahler met Freud in Leyden in August 1910, Freud noted (Ernest Jones, Sigmund Freud: Life and Work, Vol 2, Hogarth Press, 1962) an incident from Mahler’s childhood in Iglau (Jihlava) in Moravia. Terrified by a volcanic row between his cruel father and his mother, the boy rushed out of the house, to hear a hurdy gurdy player in the street playing the light Viennese tune, O, du lieber Augustin.

Which accounts for his music. The song’s refrain is

O, du lieber Augustin,
Alles ist hin.

Untranslatable without loss of effect, but the words have a haunting and Mahlerian sadness. Street musicians of eastern Europe before the holocausts … pathos of mechanical music … pathos of the organ-grinder … Petrushka

3 Responses to “The hurdy gurdy”


  1. […] La nursery June 3, 2008 The hurdy gurdy […]

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Death is suggested in horror movies by the mechanical or singsong repetition of a nursery rhyme by a child or the mechanical reproduction of a tune by a musical box. The closing mad lullaby in Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa, as Mariya rocks the corpse of Andrei, not knowing who he is or even that he is dead, has a mesmerised mechanical pathos. The Nutcracker (which contains subtler intimations of mortality than the Pathétique) ends with something like an organ-grinder’s tune, when Drosselmeyer’s nephew reappears in human form at the toymaker’s shop. Even the closing chorus of Bach’s Matthew Passion, Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder, has a rhythmical, mechanical, repetitive pathos.


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