Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. In a classical song, when a voice is accompanied by a piano, there can be a tendency for the vocal writing to take priority. As a result, the piano part might seem a bit like window dressing – more like Robin, less like Batman.
Not so, in the hands of Franz Schubert. Just as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar gave new meaning to the skyhook, Schubert brought a new dimension to piano accompaniment. A good example is Gretchen Am Spinnrade, one of his 600+ songs for voice and piano.
Gretchen is about a young woman who has been seduced by an older, more worldly man. She is sitting at her spinning wheel, making yarn as she swoons for this man. (Who doesn’t enjoy a good yarn-making love song?)
Schubert found a really creative way to bring the piano to life: in the upper range, he wrote a pulsing taka-taka-taka pattern imitating the noisy clatter of a revolving wheel. Meanwhile, there is a monotonous thumpety-thump in the bass line, representing the foot pedal that Gretchen presses to keep the wheel going. As the listener, you almost feel like this piano could knit you a blanket.
About halfway through, there is a moment when Gretchen imagines being kissed by her lover. The spinning stops, there is a break in the music, then you hear the “wheel” sputter before Gretchen gathers herself and resumes spinning. You will be able to immediately recognize this moment. In this way, the piano becomes an essential part of the drama, equal in importance to the voice.
The seducer in our story is none other than the mythical Faust as retold by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose writings inspired Schubert to compose some of his most important music. Enjoy …
Performer: Bibiana Nwobilo (soprano)
Composition: Franz Schubert, “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” D. 118