Two hundred one years ago this week, Franz Schubert wrote a song that would alter the course of music history. “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel” is an unassuming title for Schubert’s first masterpiece and the start of an entire genre of music.
Alone, Gretchen gazes from her spinning wheel. It spins, it clicks, the foot pedal goes up and down, all without stopping. She despairs over the love she has lost, and she will not be consoled. She knows that the peace once in her heart she will never find again.
Franz Schubert found Goethe’s poem in Faust, published just a few years earlier. In “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel,” his first setting of Goethe, Schubert not only found his calling, he founded an entire type of composition, the art song. He would compose more than 600 of them in his 31 short years.
There had been songs before, of course. But art songs—in particular, German Lieder—were new. Not drawn from opera, they were self-contained concert dramas for voice and piano, setting poems steeped in romantic philosophy. They place the self-aware, if flawed, individual against nature or society, where it shines in all its glory—or despair.
Deceptively simple, Schubert’s harmonic agitation and melodic rage reflect Gretchen’s turmoil, while the wheel inexorably turns.
Schubert’s emotional knowledge staggers in its maturity. He had been composing songs for four years before this one. Gretchen am Spinnrade changed the course of music. Schubert was 17.