The first thing that strikes the listener of today is that Schubert gives this scena an operatic treatment supposedly not yet invented. It mirrors the words in a flow of recitative which can only be compared to that of Wagner in its harmonic audacity and expressive power; it is as if Mephistopheles himself has emboldened the composer to look into the future. The opening consists of a pair of ascending three-note phrases which sidle up to the heroine with malicious intent. In this scene, Gretchen never answers the 'Böser Geist' or acknowledges his presence. In the stage directions this Evil Spirit is behind her, but whether the devil (is it he, or one of his plenipotentiaries?) is invisible to Gretchen is unclear. Does she hear his voice whispering in her ear, or do his taunts masquerade as the workings of her own conscience? He speaks in seductive tones of honeyed sympathy, like a torturer persuading his victim to relax, all the better to surprise her with sudden pain. The words 'altar' and 'God' (and later 'heart' and 'soul') all occasion the rise of a fourth, as if to put them in the inverted commas of sneering irony. The sinister two bars of chromatically rising harmonies before 'Gretchen! wo steht dein Kopf' insidiously suggest psychic rape. Gretchen is taunted with her pregnancy, and in accusing her of planning to kill the child as yet unborn, the spirit plants in her the seed of the idea. The baby stirs within her, and Schubert invents a figure, a slow writhing trill in tenths to depict the stirring of the threatened foetus. In all three of her frenzied interruptions of this stream of manipulative abuse, Gretchen sings in the most uncomfortable part of her voice—a shrill contrast to the baritone's ease. 'Weh! Weh! wär ich' (D flat, D natural, E flat) are accompanied by three ascending diminished sevenths leading to a chord of E flat; the fingers of the right hand make every effort to break out of the straitjacket—they try shifting notes in the middle of the chord, changing the position of thumb and little finger, until they break out into the temporary respite of G major. This introduces the C minor chorus of 'Dies irae', sung only too aptly, by members of the congregation. Condemned on all sides, Gretchen is caught between the Devil and the Holy See. The implacable strength of the chorale rhythm contrasts with the wayward indiscipline of Gretchen's thoughts. The Evil Spirit now throws off all pretence at gentleness. The horrors of judgement at the resurrection, last trump and all, are gloatingly described, and lead to further self-laceration on the highly-strung chromatic wire. The chorus again, and for the third time Schubert finds constricted music of fear and claustrophobia for his poor heroine, ('Mir wird so eng!'). In calling for air, the voice claws its way out of a mass of chromatic debris. This is the last we hear of her, for it is here (rather than later, as in the play) that she faints. In the last line of the scene in Goethe, Gretchen calls for smelling salts, something which Schubert wisely avoided setting to music. It is only in the last choral refrain (for the first time marked piano) that Schubert allows a touch of compassion for his stricken heroine. And here he leaves her until May 1817. This is the last time we encounter Gretchen in the play, until we find her in chains in prison, and condemned to death.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991