The powerful story of Gretchen's seduction is told in Part One of Faust in a succession of scenes which the poet shuffled and expanded over the years. Sketches of the early and original Ur-Faust (1774–5) suggest that the anguish of Gretchen am Spinnrade follows her deflowering; she realises that she is pregnant and foresees the horrors of her future. The version Schubert would have read makes it easier to assume that Gretchen sings the song in a state of arousal, her innocence threatened but not yet lost. Either interpretation of the character is encompassed by the lyricism and the searing intensity of Schubert's setting.
A study of the early songs confirms that many and various touches of genius existed in Schubert's Lieder well before 19 October 1814. But these earlier works, often overtly influenced by other composers, pale beside the coup de maître which is Gretchen am Spinnrade. To emerge from what had been a most distinguished apprenticeship into the realm of mastery, Schubert needed to find the right poet to set him on creative fire. It was Shakespeare who had liberated the young Goethe from the narrow precepts of his predecessors, and it was Goethe who performed the same service for Schubert. Gretchen is his first Goethe setting and it was love at first sight. There had been dalliances with the idealised Elisa, Adelaide and Laura of Matthisson but these were 'nice' girls; in Gretchen, who is on the brink of being engulfed by her own turbulent emotions and the strictures of a cruel world, the composer recognised the new frank reality of the romantic age, his own reality perhaps, and the full implications of his song-writing destiny. This most auspicious of days in the Lieder calendar was preceded, on 18 October 1814, by one of the biggest open-air celebrations ever known in Vienna, a thanksgiving and Volksfest in the Prater, to mark the first celebration of Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of Leipzig, and the freeing of the German nations from the French yoke. Offerings of gratitude were made on specially constructed altars to celebrate German-Austrian cooperation. A feeling that he was living in great and stirring times perhaps helped encourage Schubert, the next day, to compose the first of many immortal collaborations between Weimar and Vienna, German word and Austrian tone.As the stage directions demand, Schubert places the scene in Gretchen's room; we are made to hear the claustrophobia of an enclosed space in the constriction and repetitiveness of a vocal line which is hemmed in until it breaks wildly out of its cage. The accompaniment represents the spinning-wheel, with the click-clack of the bobbin in the left hand, counterpointing the rotation of the wheel, but it is a spinning-wheel capable of mirroring orchestral sonority, a big dipper following the ups-and-downs of the human heart. The piano's notes, trapped within a small space on the stave, transcend the original intent of their imagery: they seem like Gretchen's confused thoughts hammering in her brain, their relentless movement, driven by an inescapable obsession, fuelled by blind panic and momentarily stalled by desire, suggest something more diabolical than a wooden wheel and a spinner's foot-pedal. And from the musical and structural point of view it is the movement of this spinning dynamo which pulls together all the strands in the song and weaves them into imperishable yarn.
Goethe has set out his verse in short lines, simplicity and desperation all in one, and Schubert has found a musical means to mirror that structure: each line is followed by a rest, a short gasp between statements. The piece starts in low gear veering between stretches of D minor, drained of expression and a shift to an unexpected C major which gives an archaic modal twist to the harmony. As soon as accidentals begin to pepper the page, Gretchen who has started the song in a depressed daze, warms into vehement life—the tessitura of 'die ganze Welt ist mir vergällt' in the chest register seems wrenched from the gut, while the heartstrings are set a-jangling by the sudden shift to an octave higher in 'mein armer Kopf ist mir verrückt'. Schubert does not shy away from the wail of hysteria inherent in this line; the voice is challenged to sit around E, F and G—the soprano's perilous passaggio—to marvellous effect. Schubert now inserts a reprise of the opening verse; the poem does not need this repeat to establish a sense of obsession, but the music does, and each time we hear the refrain it seems subtly different. The thought of how handsome and good Faust is, applies the balm of the relative major (F). This section (Verses 5 and 6) is a miniature Frauenliebe und -leben; it starts as idealistically and demurely as that cycle, and as in Er, der herrlichste von allen, progresses to a description of the beloved's best points. Schumann's heroine is eventually happily married, but the stories of the two women dramatically diverge as fleeting key shifts trace Gretchen's whirlwind courtship. The slippery slope of the chromatic scale for 'Zauberfluss' is a marvellous touch, suggesting, as it somehow does, a flood of artfully insincere words. And then the clasp of his hand, and then his kiss—a searing memory thrown into the void created by Faust's cruel absence. And then silence.
Governed by mechanical habit, for the wheel is her work and drudgery, Gretchen sets it turning once more. Where to go from here? Another repeat of the refrain, and a lesser composer would have been in a spin as to what to do next. The simple change from D minor to B flat major for 'Mein Busen drängt sich' is positively wanton in its effect; it is as if Gretchen has lifted and proffered her breasts. Goethe meant something at least as strong as this—his original lines here were 'my womb longs for him.' For thirty seconds we hear a force of nature unleashed, Amazonian womanhood denuded of all propriety; she wants to kiss Faust as she would like, sister of the women who would tear Orpheus limb from limb. It is this that was unheard of in song, altogether more revolutionary than the invention of a wheel. Is this desire, hysteria, anger, fear or a mixture of them all? With almost each bar the harmony changes, rising and panting, the senses spinning and whirling. The storm culminates in two top A's, and suddenly all passion is spent and we hear once more the quiet desperation of 'Meine Ruh' ist hin'. The only flaw in this masterpiece is one of vocal practicality: most singers would be grateful for just one more bar of spinning interlude to come down from the 'high' of hysterical passion and make the transition to the bereft return of the refrain. Johann Vogl asked for a similar mercy in a passage in Erlkönig and Schubert made the necessary alteration.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991