It is still studied in universities around the world and barely a year rolls by without a new 'reading' or understanding being published. I recently read one called Goethe's Faust: The Tragedy of Development, written by Marshall Berman. Berman relates Faust's and Goethe's ideas of 'writing life large' (of taking your ideas and manifesting them across societies and time). It incorporates the Thucydides' style view of the great human, the human of immense energy, sweeping away the old and uttering in the new. Examples given were Faust, Goethe, Baron Haussman and Robert Moses.
Goethe always admired Greek and Roman history and always advocated the ability of the classic era in each to also 'write life and thought large.'
In 1814, in Biedermeier Vienna a seventeen year old Franz Schubert read Part One of Goethe's Faust. He immediately set a portion of the play to piano. The lied he entitled "Gretchen am Spinnrade" (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) and in his own way Schubert, through music would write his own thought large across time and societies, as this song (for piano and soprano) would go on to forever change the world of music, sound and our relationship to it.
Born in Himmelpfortgrund, Vienna in 1797, Franz received music training from his family (particularly his father) and friends from a young age until in 1804 when he was recognized and taught by the highly accomplished composer Anton Salieri (not the one from the Peter Schaffer play). It is said that he quipped: “Teach? I sit back and watch, as the boy already knows everything. Highly likely to be apocryphal but none the les,s Salieri's judgment of Schubert was also mirrored by Beethoven who prophesied “ Yes Schubert will go far.”
Gretchen at the Spinning wheel utilizes text from Part One, Scene 18 of Goethe's Faust.
Schubert's hand written score.
German (and English Translation) of the lied.
Elly Ameling (soprano) + Jorg Demus (piano) performance.
The setting is Gretchen seated, using her spinning wheel thinking of Faust. The piano initiates the song with a reinforced accelerating and decelerating repeated D minor melody. This melody tonally rises and falls, representing the motion of the wooden spinning wheel as Gretchen pushes the peddle to drive it.
As Gretchen begins to sing of her heartache, the steady rhythm of the rotating wheel accompanies her. But as she recognizes/ sings/ states (in semi-recitative) her situation, she becomes emotionally moved and fails to keep the spinning wheel steady (represented in the piano by the breaking down of the 'spinning melody').
This scenario is repeated. However on the second capitulation, as the melody begins to become more sparse, the piano releases a series of block chords before a moment's silence. This plays as Gretchen is at the height of her ecstatic anger. As Gretchen collects her thoughts, the 'spinning melody' rocks slowly but insistently back into action.
Some have commented that with the return of the steady 'spinning melody' during Gretchen's final lament, Schubert intends to illustrate; reality is always present and that Gretchen cannot (as we cannot) escape reality.
Yet this song was the first in history to explicitly illustrate a philosophy of music that connects humanity's emotional experience, the physical world and our functionality. When we fear, or despair or experience anger, our ability to maintain our functional selves often falters.
In the varied information we have relating to the musician, poet and prophet Orpheus, we find that he played mainly two types of song on his lyre; songs of worship/protection and songs that could animate/control life and nature. It is a fascinating observation that the second type of songs, were always described as 'spinning songs.'
The mechanical nature of the wheel in Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel fulfills multiple roles; metronome, emotional barometer and functional energy/movement.
The multiple layers of complexity set up by the soprano and piano instructing one another, leads to the song being greater than the sum of its parts; the piano supports the soprano, but also has its own identity, the soprano supports the piano but also maintains her own separate psychological existence. Entwined in song the two create a compendium that lives and feels upon every listening.
As Debussy would later say; 'Music does not contain emotion, it is emotion.'
Schubert across the ages and countries has blessed society with a beautiful song that also brings us a burden. The burden that any song written after Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel can no longer just have instruments accompanying the voice, that the instruments must contribute psychologically to the song.
We are still learning/ researching about Schubert's far reaching contribution to song and programmatic music today