Work on “Like the Old Organ-Grinder” was a real grind: the mere thought of celebrating the 200th anniversary of Schubert’s birth with the “whole of progressive humanity” was a form of exquisite torment for me, as Schubert’s music is the most perfect expression of Gemütlichkeit.
At first sight, a modern piece based on motifs from “The Organ-Grinder” from Schubert’s “Winterreise” — a masterpiece of early 19th century minimalism — might seem to demand a minimalism treatment. But that would have been the easy way out. I thought a lot about Schubert’s variations on themes from his own songs, including the variations for flute and piano on “Trockne Blumen” and the slow movement from the C major Fantasy for violin and piano, with its variations on the theme of “Sei mir gegrüßt”, in which the composer radically departs from the sense of Ruckert’s poem and in so doing moves away from the exemplary structure of the song, which now provides no more than a basic impulse.
But “Like the Old Organ-Grinder” is not a set of variations, it is not a fantasy or a paraphrase. It is a commentary, a sort of critique (in a positive sense!), albeit one that employs musical means that cannot be put into words.
The piece is dedicated to, and intended for, Gidon Kremer and, in a way, is the sketch of a portrait of him. Here there are, as it were, reminiscences of his repertory — listeners with an eye for detail may be left to guess the meaning of this charade for themselves. In some quite wonderful way, the “foreign” element is combined with “Schubert”, and the puzzle falls into place.