Schubert’s setting of Goethe’s poem, “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” is evocatively beautiful and menacing – an ominous feeling of overwhelming melancholy and love’s fateful delirium. The lyrics are in stanzas of four and are in strophic form. Schubert’s D Minor setting is through-composed and accordingly illustrates the sorrowful feelings of Gretchen. The first stanza, “Meine Ruh’ is hin, Mein Herz ist schwer, Ich finde sie nimmer Und nimmermehr” following the third and sixth stanzas transforms, not into a refrain but a repeat ritornello-like section. This recurring “ritornello” reminds the listener of Gretchen’s inner anguish and aching heart. Overflowing with anguish and hopeless love, the emotional “Word Painting” pull of this lied is achieved by the piano collaboration, musical texture changes, and harmonic mixture in the telling of this tale.
The music and text paint the picture of a girl possessed by the touch and memory of a certain man, yet Gretchen is isolated in her grief. Schubert takes the grief of this girl to an ascending level of torment. She can only sit at her spinning wheel. The unending circle “painting” her emotions.
Seemingly requiring a pianist of both strength and dexterity. The idea behind the accompaniment is simple, yet brilliant. The right hand has to flow swiftly through sixteenth notes emulating the whirring sound of the spinning wheel. It easily doubles as a metaphor for the confusing emotions whirling within her mind. Perhaps, the spinning wheel mirrors the hypnotic effect of the temptation of love. The left hand, divided into two-parts, one requiring a stable beat to mimic the treadling of the spinning wheel; the other represents Gretchen’s beating heart. Striking to this setting, the spinning wheel is already in motion when the piece begins (See Fig. 1).
Figure 1 Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade, mm. 1-6.
Expressing her most inner desires, Gretchen’s mind moves along with the rhythm of her hands. Gretchen has already been seduced. The story is already set in motion as we join Gretchen with her sorrowful feelings. The first variation from the lower piano part can be found from m. 51 with chords, as it replaces the treadling motif. The chords continue until the most striking change in the piano accompaniment occurs in mm. 66-68. Significant, because in m. 69 she loses control and the piano spinning wheel abruptly comes to a halt – declaring that she has stopped the wheel (See Fig. 2).
Figure 2 Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade, mm. 63-74.
Why did the wheel stop? How was this stoppage achieved? First, he put a crotchet and a quaver rest in the middle of the line, “und ach” and “sein Kuss,” before the jolt to the pitch G to emphasize the last word, “Kuss!” This is especially remarkable because the pitch G is so far the highest note of the lied. Gretchen’s depth of inner anguish is felt at this moment. It is my opinion that the spinning wheel comes to an abrupt stop to allow the listener a brief moment to understand...