This poem is ideal material for a strophic song; indeed any attempt to find a through-composed solution would result in something more like an opera. The words are supremely understated, as is the drama and sense of tragedy, and something nearer folksong than Lied seems entirely fitting. The girl too, simple without being stupid, would be more likely to sing something repetitive, burying herself in her work. Schubert has found his principal ideas here from the idea of spinning: the semiquavers are truly spun, like flaxen thread, delicately woven, passing through the stave's warp and woof. The original key is impossible for anyone but the highest and chirpiest of sopranos, and even then the tessitura is too high for the phonation of comprehensible words; this is perhaps why so few singers take up this masterpiece, for so it is, and there are also the usual daunting challenges of colouring and memorising strophic songs. The story is a tragic one of seduction, exploitation and disgrace (for this is undoubtedly what the girl faces when her secret is discovered) but it is recounted without sentimentality and self-pity, and is all the more moving for that. John Reed calls this 'a triumphant vindication of Goethe's views on the supremacy of the strophic song'. It was the fourth item in a book of Goethe settings which Josef von Spaun sent to the great poet in 1816, but it went unnoticed and unacknowledged like the rest. It is perhaps one of Schubert's most concentrated and effective strophic settings, in that the drudgery of repetition, the feeling that one of life's sad old stories is happening yet again, is built into the very form of the song.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1989