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This Song Changed the Course of Music

Detail from Schubertiade by Julius Schmid, 1897

It was 201 years ago this week that Franz Schubert (1797-1828) wrote a song that would alter the course of music history. WRTI’s Kile Smith looks at “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel,” 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.

Schubert's emotional knowledge staggers in its maturity.

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. Taken up by Schumann, Brahms, and others in Germany, and by composers around the world, the art song is still vibrant today. But Schubert is still king. 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.

There had been songs before, of course. But art songs - in particular, German Lieder - were new.

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.