The legend of Dr. Faust — a scholar dissatisfied with his life, who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for renewed youth, strength, and vigor — is an ancient one. The first literary adaptations of the Faust legend began to appear in the sixteenth century, and every age since has reinterpreted the story according to its own cultural ethos.
The great poet of German classicism, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), wrote his own version of the Faust legend as a play in rhymed verse in two parts, the first part appearing in 1808, the second published after his death. It provided the basis for many musical works in the nineteenth century, including Schubert’s great song “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel), which Schubert wrote when he was only seventeen.
Gretchen is a young peasant girl who has fallen in love with the new, improved version of Faust. She waits for him to come as she spins wool on her spinning wheel.
As she spins, her thoughts take a more and more obsessive turn. She fantasizes about Faust: his noble good looks, the enchanting flow of his conversation, and his kiss — at which point she is so overcome that the constant motion of her spinning wheel, represented by Schubert in the right hand of the piano part, stops for a moment while Gretchen calms herself and gathers her wits. Then she picks up the motion of the wheel again.
At the age of seventeen, Schubert was able to enter into the inner life of his protagonist and write what is almost a miniature opera, but for only two players: the piano and the voice. The song, with the piano mimicking the outer world and the voice showing the interior life of the character, revolutionized music.
As the pianist Graham Johnson says,
There is a feeling where we no longer care about [the piano being the spinning wheel . . . It becomes synonymous with the whirring, the dislocation, of a young woman’s discovery of her sexual vulnerability . . . Everybody thinks that lieder is something incredibly outdated and non-relevant . . . But the idea of giving a woman’s anguish center stage. And she’s speaking, “It’s me who’s suffering this.” And we get a certain framework. I mean, Billie Holiday would have understood.
Waiting in vain for the beloved to come is a theme that never gets old:
The paintings of solitary women by American artist Edward Hopper (1882-1967) often remind me of Gretchen waiting for Faust.