Lieder and cycling

The king of all bicycle messengers:
Nelson Vails “The Cheetah,”
Olympic Silver Medalist (1984)

When I was a teenager, I got a job one summer working as a bike messenger in New York. We were paid by the number of deliveries, and our reputation for riding recklessly was well-earned; that summer was one long adrenalin rush. One day I had a package to pick up in a used record shop and wound up stopping to chat with the kindly owner. He gifted me a record full of music new to me: Lieder, or, in English, “art song.”

These songs are inevitably heart-on-the-sleeve, serving up love lost and found with an extra helping of sweet suffering. Here are lyrics to a song from “Winterreise” (Winter Journey) by Schubert. The cycle details the dismal journey of a rejected lover in winter and was written during that prodigiously prolific last year.

English Translation by Richard Wigmore from a poem by Wilhelm Müller

By the well, before the gate,
stands a linden tree;
in its shade I dreamt
many a sweet dream.

In its bark I carved
many a word of love;
in joy and sorrow
I was ever drawn to it.

Today, too, I had to walk
past it at dead of night;
even in the darkness
I closed my eyes.And its branches rustled
as if they were calling to me:
‘Come to me, friend,
here you will find rest.’

The cold wind blew
straight into my face,
my hat flew from my head;
I did not turn back.

Now I am many hours’ journey
from that place;
yet I still hear the rustling:
‘There you would find rest.’

Listen to how the piano line mimics the lyrics. The opening sounds just like “branches rustling” calling “here you will find rest” (“rest” being a euphemism for death and the end of suffering).

The Linden Tree” from Winterreise by Schubert

Recently I’ve been on a Schumann kick, in particular the cycle “Dichterliebe” (A Poet’s Love). In the way it can evoke a world of feeling in 58 seconds, this kind of short form is a direct precursor to Anton Webern’s 20th Century miniatures.

“Many flowers spring up from my tears,
and a nightingale choir from my sighs:
If you love me, I'll pick them all for you,
and the nightingale will sing at your window."

Who would think that a love of riding bicycles could lead to the discovery of a new art form? Anyone up for a ride when I come up? Who knows what we would discover?

David Yang, Artistic Director

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