Schubert's Lieder: Settings of Goethe's poems
Schubert's Lieder: Settings of Goethe's poems

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Schubert's Lieder: Settings of Goethe's poems

4.3.1 ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ (‘Gretchen at the Spinning-Wheel’, 1814)

This celebrated song was Schubert's first setting of a poem by Goethe. Written when he was only 17, it was one of the few songs to be sold in quite large numbers during Schubert's lifetime – though he made little money out of it. Robert David MacDonald's translation, taken from his version of Faust, conveys not only the meaning of Goethe's words, with a few liberties, but also the rhythm and something close to the rhyming-scheme of the original. The six concluding lines are in brackets because they are repeated in Schubert's song but not in Goethe's original poem.

The poem and its translation appear below as does the music score of this song.

Exercise 5

Listen to ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ by clicking the link below, follow the translation (available by clicking the link below), and consider what Schubert has done to Goethe's poem. In what ways has he remained faithful to the rhythm and structure of the poem, and in what ways has he changed or adapted them?

Click to read the poem [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Click to view the score

Click below to listen to Gretchen am Spinnrade.

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The poem is short and simple. The lines are short, and Gretchen conveys her feelings directly and forcefully.

Is Schubert similarly direct and simple? Yes and no. In one essential way Schubert does remain faithful to the rhythm of the poem. Each line of the poem is very short; it is partly the constant repetition of this rhythm in the poem itself that conveys Gretchen's sense of obsession, of being taken over by her feelings for Faust, of knowing that she cannot escape. Schubert's phrases are also short. Each line of the poem is set to a separate phrase, and even at the climax of the song those phrases are short. In this way Schubert has preserved the detailed structure of each verse of the poem; the short phrases of music, rising twice to a climax, add to the impression of breathlessness which is already in Goethe's poem.

However, Schubert's extra repetition of some of the words alters the broader structure of the poem in fundamental ways. Goethe repeats the opening verse twice, to form a recurring refrain, but he does not return to it at the end. Goethe's original ends with ‘Vergehen sollt'!’ (‘sink and die’). Schubert repeats Goethe's final verse, so extending the climax of the song, and then, after the piano part has quietened, repeats Goethe's refrain one last time. This final repetition of the refrain is made especially poignant by the fact that Gretchen does not complete it: she sings only the first two lines. This has the wonderful effect of making the song sound unfinished – it does come to an end, but the feelings hang in the air, heightening the impression that Gretchen can never escape from them.

Schubert intensifies the effect of this refrain with an internal repetition which is not so obvious. In line 3 of the first verse, he repeats ‘Ich finde’, and he does this each time the refrain occurs. This might seem a small point, but it has the effect of creating a longer phrase than at any other time in the song. Every other phrase in the song is two bars long. Those phrases often form pairs, four bars long, like a pair of lines in the poem. But lines 3 and 4 of the first verse are moulded into one continuous, longer phrase, five bars long (or six, if you count the bar that the piano plays at the end of it). It is not important to know how many bars long the phrases are, though you may like to check my analysis on the score. What is important is the yearning emphasis this continuous, longer phrase throws on those lines: ‘I'll find it never, nevermore’. Because Gretchen comes back to it twice, it seems like the heart of the song. And then at the end, when she fails to reach it, this intensifies the feeling of something unfinished and ongoing.

The other striking feature of Schubert’s song is the piano part. Goethe's stage instruction specifies that Gretchen is at her spinning-wheel. Schubert's accompaniment does not literally sound like a spinning-wheel: the rhythm is quite different. But he has created a musical analogy, with a whirling pattern of rapid notes which repeats constantly, changing pitch and key as the song progresses, but never changing its basic pattern and rhythm. If you look at the piano part in the score, you can see that, in the right hand, the pattern of six notes is repeated throughout the song, only very occasionally being varied. There is also a regular pattern through most of the left hand. This generates not only an effect suggestive of a spinningwheel, but also a sense of something that cannot be escaped. Indeed, as often in Schubert’s songs, it almost seems wrong to talk of the piano part as an ‘accompaniment’. You could equally well say that it is the piano which determines the mood and the structure of the piece, and the voice sings an ‘accompaniment’.

There is one obvious, basic difference between the song and the poem. The song has an enormous emotional range, beginning softly and rising twice to great climaxes. At the first climax, at ‘Und ach, sein Kuss!’, the music stops abruptly after the high note on ‘Kuss’ (‘kiss’), and then restarts quietly and hesitantly. This gives the impression that Gretchen is getting the spinning-wheel going again; but it also conveys a sense of hopelessness, as she realises that her overwhelming passion has doomed her to a sense of loss. The final climax is even higher and more sustained, with the climactic phrase repeated to the words ‘Vergehen sollt’!’ (‘sink and die’), and then the climax dying away as the spinning-wheel slows down, and Gretchen sadly reiterating her half-finished refrain. But is it right to say that the song has a greater emotional range than the poem? Certainly the singer of the song is asked by Schubert to encompass a massive range of volume, from pianissimo at the beginning to fortissimo at the climax, and from low notes at the start to high notes at the climax. Readers of the poem, whether in the context of the play or not, would never do that. It is easy to imagine how ridiculous it would sound if the actor playing Gretchen were to speak or sing it with massive climaxes, as in Schubert's song. But does that mean that the poem is less emotional than the song? Music certainly has its own emotional structures and dynamics, and one of the hallmarks of Romantic music is the use of greater freedom and more extreme contrasts than were used in the time of Mozart.

‘Gretchen’ is a song sung by a female character in Goethe's Faust. Although nineteenth-century singers often sang Lieder which seem intended for the opposite sex, only women are reported to have sung this song in Schubert's lifetime. There is no record, as far as I know, of Vogl singing it. A number of women singers were important in promoting Schubert's songs specifically for women. Among them were the much-loved actress Sophie Miiller, who sang his songs ‘most touchingly’, sometimes with Schubert himself accompanying (Deutsch, 1946, p. 403), and a pupil of Vogl, Anna Milder, for whom Schubert wrote the lovely song with piano and clarinet, ‘The Shepherd on the Rock’.


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