The hurdy-gurdy, like the bagpipe, is a drone instrument. A rosined wheel, acting like a violin bow, constantly plays the strings giving a one or more note drone. The keys press tangents onto the strings allowing the player to sound out melodies over the drone. Schubert's song evokes this very closely:
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And this in the voice:
A composition student might reject this as being too simple, too "obvious" (whatever that means), but in Schubert's hands it is the most devastating end to this large cycle of twenty-four songs, most of them quite grim. The A/E drone continues in every measure and there are only two harmonies: E major (the dominant, sometimes with its seventh) and A minor, the tonic.
At the end of this long winter's journey of despair, to quote the Wikipedia summary:
24. Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man) Behind the village stands a hurdy-gurdy man, cranking his instrument with frozen fingers. His begging bowl is always empty; no one listens to his music, and the dogs growl at him. But his playing never stops. “Strange old man. Shall I come with you? Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to accompany my songs?”It may be the poet in the persona of the forlorn lover who is speaking, but it is pretty clear who the Leiermann is: Schubert himself. At the end of his life (he was to die within the year), he is sick, impoverished and virtually unknown in his own city (he was the only one of the great Viennese masters to be actually born there). And his music? Does anyone listen to it? Or is it nothing but the feeble scrapings of a hurdy-gurdy, trapped within its drones, played by a lonely figure on the edge of town. This is a familiar psychological state; the emotional claustrophobia that comes when it seems there is no escape from an unendurable fate.
It is time to listen. This is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau accompanied by Alfred Brendel (with English translation):