An unnamed, unknown man resolves to leave his former sweetheart’s town. She or her parents or all three have rejected him for a wealthier man, and the rejection impels an inner journey into the soul (“Gute Nacht”). As he leaves by night, he bids her a tender, wistful farewell that she does not hear.
In “Die Wetterfahne,” he compares her heart to a weather vane spinning in the wind, wonders why his tears freeze on his face despite the heat of his grief (“Gefrorne Tränen”), and fears losing all memory of her should his frozen heart ever thaw (“Erstarrung”). He recalls the linden tree where they used to meet, a tree whose leaves now whisper of death (“Der Lindenbaum”). He fancies that his tears will flow to the beloved’s house (“Wasserflut”), carves the birth-and-death dates of their love in the frozen river’s crust (“Auf dem Flusse”), and feels as if he is hounded out of her town by the crows on the rooftops (“Rückblick”).
He follows a will-o’-the-wisp without caring how he will find a way out (“Irrlicht”). Soul-sick weariness (“Rast”) and the shattering disillusionment of awaking from dreams to cold reality (“Frühlingstraum”) are the next traumas along the way, leading to an utter sense of loneliness (“Einsamkeit”).
The post coach enlivens the cycle at mid-point (“Die Post”), as the wanderer wonders why his heart leaps when there is no prospect of a letter, of any communication from another human being. He broods increasingly on death and alienation from other human beings, with one outburst of stormy despair and a dance of delusion as he follows another will-o’-the-wisp (“Der greise Kopf,” “Die Krähe,” “Letzte Hoffnung,” “Im Dorfe,” “Der stürmische Morgen,” and “Täuschung”).
In the crucial 20th song (“Der Wegweiser”), he sees in his mind the “road I must tread, by which no one has yet returned,” but Death turns him away from the cemetery there-after (“Das Wirtshaus”). Longing for death but unable to kill himself, he keeps going somehow, with delusory courage (“Mut”) and resigned sadness (“Die Nebensonnen”). At the end (“Der Leiermann”), he encounters a beggar-musician (a hallucination? his dou-ble?), beyond the bounds of society, unheard, grinding away at his music regardless, and asks if he might go with him. There is no answer.
—Copyright © 2015 by Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts