Gretchen am Spinnrade by Franz Schubert

The piece that I am covering today is one of my all-time favorites, performed by the incomparable Renee Fleming. It is called Gretchen am Spinnrade, which is Schubert’s take on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s literary masterpiece Faust. The character Gretchen (also called Margaret, for some reason I am not quite clear on) is a virgin, and she wants to stay that way. That is, until Faust comes along. With the devil helping him, Faust easily wins the heart and virginity of poor Gretchen, leaving her pregnant and destroyed. I won’t reveal how the play ends, but it is a fascinating read (or watch) if you have the time.

This particular song is about the moment between seduction and the actual lovemaking. Gretchen knows that it is already too late, that she will give herself to him when he comes again. She sits at her spinning wheel (Spinnrade) and contemplates her dilemma, reflecting on the one passionate kiss they shared.  She yearns for more, knowing it will cause her own destruction. . You can find the German text and English translation here. []

So, first of all, this is a sung classical piece that is not opera. Wait, what?! I thought all classical singers did opera? Well, not exactly. Many, if not most, professional singers do perform opera, but it is not the only avenue for musical self expression as a singer. We also have the art song. These are usually pieces written for solo piano and voice, like this one. Franz Schubert is one of the great composers of art song. In fact, he wrote over 600 art songs or “lieder”.

So who was this Franz Schubert guy? He was another one of those composers that falls on the cusp between two periods, the Classical and the Romantic. Many of his contemporaries had the privilege to work under greats like Mozart and Beethoven. Schubert was not so lucky, and it may be because of this that he was able to form his own style, which is clearly Romantic. In fact, during the Classical period, composing songs was not generally considered “high art”. Symphonies and operas were the demand of the day. (Schubert composed some of those too, but his art songs are considered to be his greatest works.)

Now it’s time for the fun part. What makes this piece great? Is it beautiful? What is it trying to say? How does it differ from other great music?

One of the many reasons that piece stands out to me (and many like it from this time period) is the simplicity. When everyone else was writing pieces for 36 piece orchestra, Schubert knew that writing a piece for voice and piano would lend a sense of solitary introspection. We don’t often wear our heartbreak on our sleeves; we don’t shout it to the world. When we are alone, the truth comes out. Who on earth could feel alone with zillions of instruments playing beneath them?

In this piece particularly, we get an extra sense of loneliness because the piano is not, in fact, a piano. It’s her spinning wheel. Listening to the accompaniment gives you a sense of spinning, doesn’t it? And the motif (short repeating theme) is constant. The only moment where the spinning wheel ceases its steady, driving rhythm is as Gretchen reflects on the kiss they shared. She loses herself in it, and the spinning wheel stops. As she comes back to reality, the spinning wheel picks back up again, but it seems sadder this time. She is resigned to her fate and allows herself to yearn for him once more.

The song ends the way it began. She sings “My peace is gone, and my heart is heavy.” It would seem that her spinning wheel is not only a real object but a metaphor for her tormented thoughts. She thinks of his kiss then returns to her pain. She yearns for his touch then returns to her pain. As the wheel is spinning, so too is her mind. Reeling. Grasping. Perhaps, holding onto the spinning wheel may be, in a very real way, her last desperate attempt to hold onto her purity, her sanity. By the end, it is useless. The wheel has become mechanical, and she is lost in him.