In the previous scene in the play, Gretchen has conversed with her friend Lieschen at the town well. She hears the gossip about the shameful fate of one Bärbelchen, and the ignominy brought about by her pregnancy. Her lover has abandoned her, and now she will have to do public repentance for her sin. Gretchen realises that this is also the tragic truth of her own story. Desperate and ashamed she visits the shrine of the Virgin, a statue of Mary placed in a niche 'im Zwinger' —in the city ramparts. Goethe gives over the whole of the scene to a single lyric of operatic scope and intensity, justly famous and complete in itself. Nearly eighteen months after the other Gretchen songs, it is obvious that arioso and recitative now interest Schubert far less than the challenge of writing a through-composed aria. This may account for the fact that the piano, for all the richness of the accompaniment's texture, is reduced to a supporting role. Almost all psychological interest in the song is concentrated in the vocal line, and this may have been one of the reasons why the composer abandoned the work after setting only five of the eight verses.
The opening flow of semiquavers in B flat minor, a tonality Schubert employed only a handful of times, is reminiscent of Auf der Donau D553 written the month before, a song not dissimilar in its general dark mood. But that poem travels and sees sights on its way up the Danube; Gretchen's plight on the other hand is static. There is no spinning-wheel here to keep the song on the move; apart from her grief, she describes picking flowers and sitting on her bed, hardly material for interesting piano commentary. Even Ellen in Ave Maria has a harp to string her song along. And so in the absence of a background or implied stage business which is at the heart of many a lively Lied, it is simply Gretchen's grief which Schubert has to work with. The first nine lines of the poem seem a litany, a formal prayer which Gretchen knows by heart, however more poignant and significant the words seem to composer and audience, knowing her plight. And then suddenly her own thoughts take over. At 'Wer fühlet, Wie wühlet' the liturgical metre is abandoned, and major key yields to minor in a remarkable passage for the bottom half of the voice—a viola solo in a string quartet, burrowing painfully deep into the bone, the worm in the bud of the sick rose. The first three lines of Verse 5 use a trick familiar from the last pages of Gretchen am Spinnrade: a sequence of modulations, each one turning the screw of tension tighter. The last three lines of the verse, after some tearful repetition of words, dissolve, like all Gretchen's courage, into a broken-hearted C major. The composer then placed four flats on a new stave and abandoned the composition.
Benjamin Britten's completion of the work dates from 1943 and skilfully re-cycles Schubertian material. The music for Verse 6 is transposed from the A major of Verse 2 to the A flat tonality suggested by Schubert's final key signature. Verse 7 artfully recalls the rising major-key arpeggio of 'und störe, störe nimmer' from Auflösung, D807 a song with which Britten and Pears were very well acquainted as performers. But the manner in which the twentieth-century composer meets the challenge of 'Hilf! rette mich von Schmach und Tod'—surely the heart, and point, of Goethe's poem—is more original, and convincingly Schubertian. Britten has the courage to repeat 'Hilf!' three times in the same hysterical part of the voice that Gretchen uses when she sings 'Weh! Weh!' in the Szene aus 'Faust' D126, and he underpins this passage with similar shifting progressions, exploring various possibilities of enharmonic modulation. These lead the piano to a climactic B flat minor chord in second inversion, over which the voice plummets from one end of its range to the other. Equally daringly, Britten invents a transition and inserts the words 'Ach, rette mich' twice—rhetorical additions to Goethe's poem, phrases that are supported by echoes of the opening semiquavers of the accompaniment. These prepare a touching recapitulation of the opening prayer, unaltered Schubert as is right and proper. The last of these lines is repeated with different harmonies leading to a newly invented and convincing final cadence for the piano.
In the next scene in the play, Gretchen's brother Valentin is killed in a duel with Faust and Mephistopheles. In his dying moments he calls her a whore. After this the 'Böser Geist' confronts her in church (D126). At the end of the play when Faust, in a fit of remorse, attempts to rescue Gretchen from the condemned cell, her soul is redeemed from on high. Her prayers are answered at last.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991