“Gretchen am Spinnrade” (Franz Schubert) – A Guide to Pronunciation and Interpretation

Gretchen am Spinnrade -Guide to pronunciation and interpretation
Published 06/08/2021

Translation, pronunciation guide and text analysis (interpretation tips) of “Gretchen am Spinnrade” by Franz Schubert

Text and Translation

Meine Ruh ist hin                                                                    My peace is gone
Mein Herz ist schwer                                                             my heart is heavy
Ich finde sie nimmer und nimmermehr.                           I’ll never and nevermore (again) find peace.

Wo ich ihn nicht hab, ist mir das Grab,                             Where I don’t have him, mine is the grave
die ganze Welt ist mir vergällt.                                           The whole world is bitter to me
Mein armer Kopf ist mir verrückt,                                     my poor head is crazed
mein armer Sinn ist mir zerstückt.                                    My poor mind is shattered

Meine Ruh ist hin                                                                 My peace is gone
Mein Herz ist schwer                                                           my heart is heavy
Ich finde sie nimmer und nimmermehr.                         I’ll never and nevermore (again) find peace.

Nach ihm nur schau ich zum Fenster hinaus,                For him only I look out of the window
nach ihm nur geh ich aus dem Haus.                               For him only I leave the house
Sein hoher Gang, seine edle Gestalt,                                His walk walk, his noble appearance
seines Mundes Lächeln, seiner Augen Gewalt,              his mouth’s smile, his eyes‘ power
und seiner Rede Zauberfluss,                                            And his speech’s magic flow,
sein Händedruck und ach, sein Kuss!                              the press of his hand and oh, his kiss!

Meine Ruh ist hin                                                                My peace is gone
Mein Herz ist schwer                                                          my heart is heavy
Ich finde sie nimmer und nimmermehr.                        I’ll never and nevermore (again) find peace.

Mein Busen drängt sich nach ihm hin,                           My bosom urges towards him
ach dürft ich fassen und halten ihn                                oh if only I could seize and hold him
und küssen ihn, so wie ich wollt                                      and kiss him as I want
an seinen Küssen vergehen sollt,                                   in his kisses I would die
oh könnt ich ihn küssen wie ich wollt,                           oh if only I could kiss him as I want
an seinen Küssen vergehen sollt!                                    In his kisses I would die

Meine Ruh ist hin                                                                My peace is gone
Mein Herz ist schwer…                                                      my heart is heavy…

Historical background

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The above poem was written by no less than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the great German poet. It’s integrated in his great drama “Faust – Der Tragödie erster Teil“, the most important work in German literature!

Goethe’s “Faust” premiered in 1808.

Franz Schubert

In October 1814, October 19 to be exact, Franz Schubert set the poem to music. As a title he simply chose the stage directions “Gretchen am Spinnrade”. Many consider this extraordinary song the first real “German Lied” and the date of its composition is sometimes declared “the birthday of the Romantic Art Song”.

Schubert was only seventeen years old when he wrote this masterpiece!

The story of “Faust”

Let me just sum up the plot of Goethe’s “Faust” so that we get to know a bit more about Gretchen’s situation:

“Faust” tells the story of the scientist Heinrich Faust who sold his soul to the devil.

Although very well educated, Faust is weary of the fact that he can’t find out more about the essential secrets of life. In his depression he wants to kill himself but is kept from suicide by the devil.

Why the devil? Before the actual drama, there is a prologue where God muses about good and evil. God is convinced that man is by nature good and that not even a sceptic like Faust could be tempted by evil. The devil holds against it, and they make a bet.

Faust then is lured to make a pact with the devil: Mephisto (the devil) promises to be at Faust’s service and to grant him every wish he has. In return, Faust promises his soul to the devil if he wants to grasp a happy moment. From now on, the devil is at Faust’s side.

Faust meets Gretchen

Gretchen und Faust.

When Faust sets his eyes on Gretchen for the first time he is charmed by her. He demands from Mephisto that he helps him making Gretchen his lover.

They meet, first in the garden house than at her neighbour’s garden and Faust is desperate to have sex with her. He gives Gretchen a sleeping drug for her mother so that they can meet undisturbedly (which they do). The mother, however, dies from the drug.

Gretchen confides her affair with Faust to her brother Valentin who wants to take revenge on her and challenges Faust on a duel. Mephisto, however, intervenes with magic and Faust kills Valentin. In dying, Valentin curses Gretchen and makes her affair public. When Gretchen goes to church to pray, a demon appears and confirms her suspicion that she is pregnant.

Faust in the meantime has fled with Mephisto. At one point, he gets news that Gretchen has become crazy, drowned her new-born baby and was now in prison to await her death sentence. He urges Mephisto to free her and they get into prison. Gretchen, however, refuses to come with him, dies and her soul is saved.

Mephisto takes Faust with him.

 

Musical and textual background

Gretchen spinning

Goethe placed the poem shortly after the first romantic encounter between Gretchen and Faust. She’s infatuated with the overwhelming feelings of first love. We must not forget that she is very young, sixteen to be exact and totally unexperienced when it comes to love.

Further, she is a very good girl, pious, innocent and pure. Now she has seen a different world, and she’s on the brink of transitioning from child to adult. No wonder, she’s overwhelmed by all the feelings Faust stirs in her!

The song starts with one and a half bars of piano accompaniment, a regular beat symbolizing the motion of the spinning wheel. The rhythm in the left hand acts as the pedal movement Gretchen does with her foot but also as her heartbeat.

“Gretchen am Spinnrade” – Pronunciation guide and analysis

We’ll tackle this song line by line and gather insights regarding pronunciation and interpretation by looking closer at the text and analyzing it:

Meine Ruh ist hin

Start this song very silently. The sound level for the piano is set as pianissimo and the same goes for the voice. Remember it’s an inner monologue Gretchen does, her thoughts flying off while she’s working automatically.

Carry out the diphthong [ae] in “Meine” by holding the [a] for approximately three quarters of the note and finish the last quarter off with the [e]. If you want to dig deeper in the matter of German diphthongs, here’s the article for you.

Sing the U in “Ruh” long and closed, but the I in “ist” and “hin” as open vowels. Make sure that the H in “Ruh” is silent.

mein Herz ist schwer

This and the preceding line are the quietest, most introvert and – above all – most legato lines in the whole song. This is valid for all three times these lines are repeated during the song.

Gretchen each time becomes immersed in the monotony of spinning and the endless wheel of her thoughts reflecting the movements of the spinning wheel.

In “Herz” we have a consonant cluster as the Z represents two sounds, a [t] and an [s]. Although tempting, none of the three consonants ([rts]) must be omitted. You may read more on how to tackle German consonant clusters here.

I sometimes hear that the R is turned into a schwa-sound but that’s wrong! You needn’t roll the R (you can if you want) but a one-flap R it should be at the least.

The final R in “schwer” on the other hand is a schwa-sound: pronounce it gently as [ɐ]

Make the E in “Herz” as well as the I in “ist” open, but the E in “schwer” long and closed before you glide over to the schwa [ɐ].

ich finde sie nimmer und nimmermehr

The finality of her fate – that she’ll never find again peace and calmness again – hits Gretchen. And although we could brush this off as the over-dramatic views of a teenage girl, we already know that she is right: she’ll get drawn in deeper and deeper into the spiral of evil, entangling herself so much that there will be no way back to her calm and quiet life.

For this reason, “nimmer” as well as “nimmermehr” should be sung with a little more emphasis.

All I-sounds are open, except the one in “sie” which is long and closed.

The same goes for the second E in “nimmermehr”: it’s long and closed before it glides over to the schwa-sound (see the preceding line).

Wo ich ihn nicht hab, ist mir das Grab

This is quite a dramatic statement and I know how tempted one can become to sing it dramatically. But remember the scene: Gretchen is sitting at the spinning wheel doing work and having an inner(!) monologue.

You should stress the words according to their meaning, of course, but don’t do a dramatic outburst (yet.) Gretchen is certainly not throwing things around in a tantrum.

In this line we have a regular change between open and closed vowels:

Wo   ich   ihn  nicht  hab    ist     mir  das    Grab [o:] – [i] – [i:] – [i] –   [a:] – [i] –   [i:] – [a] – [a:]

Although the consonants in this line make it relatively easy to bind the words to a smooth legato, there are a few parts you must pay attention to:

“nicht hab” may be a bit tricky due to the two different H-sounds in rapid succession. Pronounce the CH in “nicht” as well as in “ich” as [ç] which is the light version of the CH-sounds (about which you can read up here) and the H in “hab” is even lighter and pronounced [h].

The challenge is to not only to get these two different sounds right but also combine them with the T of “nicht” (which must be audible).

Die ganze Welt ist mir vergällt

„vergällt“ literally means ‘made of bile’ which is said to be one of the most bitter substances known. You might bear this in mind when singing the bitterness.

Be careful that you don’t add a shadow sound like N before “die”.

If you make a small caesura after “Welt” or not is up to you and your interpretation of the song. You might also hold the legato line until “vergällt”. In that case, you should implode the T, that is : prolong the L of “Welt” and add the T at the very last moment, almost as beginning of “ist”.

Mein armer Kopf ist mir verrückt

Gretchen’s dispair increases as she fears she’s gone crazy. If you want to make the text sound breathless and agitated, you may make a short break after “Kopf” but you may also sing on to the end of the line to stress the “verrückt”.

„verrückt“ literally means ‘out of place’, ‘shifted’. So when the head is no longer at it’s place, you are out of your mind…

Be careful that no H-sound sneaks in before “armer”; as for the R at the end of the word: you may pronounce it as schwa-sound but if you are unsure about the right E-sound, I recommend doing the R as a one-flap trill.

The double R in “verrückt” however, must be rolled.

Mein armer Sinn ist mir zerstückt

„zerstückt“ actually is quite a brutal word, its literal translation being ‘cut up’ or ‘chopped’.

The short outburst of emotions comes to a fatigued end on the word “zerstückt” which also symbolizes in the piano accompaniment.

Pronounce the second R in “armer” as schwa, followed by the voiced S of “Sinn”.

In “zerstückt” we have again a consonant cluster as the ST has to be pronounced [ʃt].

Nach ihm nur schau ich zum Fenster hinaus

While in the first few lines Gretchen muses about her feelings, her heart, head and mind, she now shifts her attention to Faust, his appearance (Gestalt) , his brains (Rede)  and his sensuality (Kuss).

That means her focus changes from inward to outward view. Nevertheless, it’s still an inner monologue.

The CH in “nach” is the slightly harsh [x]-sound.

However small, there is a tiny glottal onset between “schau” and “ich”. Pay attention that you don’t add a shadow H.

Nach ihm nur geh ich aus dem Haus

Gretchen is urged outside by her longing for Faust: she can’t help but look out of the window for him every so often and go out of the house to see if he’s coming.

Be careful: the H in „ihm” as well as the one in “geh” are silent

All vowels except the I in „ich“ are closed, the diphthong AU is pronounced [ao].

Sein hoher Gang, sein edle Gestalt

The tone becomes sweeter than before as Gretchen is remembering lovingly Faust’s image. She visualizes him and indulges in his appearance, “hoher Gang” meaning “upright posture” (i.e. the posture of a member of the upper class, someone used to command).

And we learn about Faust’s “noble” physique, probably as a contrast to the somewhat stout and plump looks of the simple people.

Bearing in mind that she is a plain girl of no high rank, it’s no wonder she got caught by his attention towards her.

The first H in “hoher” is an audible [h], the second, however, is silent. The same goes for the second G in “Gang”: it’s silent, as N and G form an [ŋ]-sound.

Pronounce the S in “sein” voiced, and keep in mind that the ST in “Gestalt” is pronounced [ʃt].

Seines Mundes Lächeln, seiner Augen Gewalt

We’re zooming in from Faust’s figure to his face, his mouth and eyes to be exact, which are the two parts of the face that people permanently scan when facing someone the like.

Also, there is the contrast between “Lächeln” (smile) and “Gewalt” which not only means ‘power’ but also ‘violence’, describing the spell Gretchen feels when she’s looking into Faust’s eyes.

The vowels in “Mundes”, “Lächeln” and „Gewalt“ are all open.

To make it easier for you to hold the legato line and also to make sure you get the right sound, I recommend making the R of “seiner Augen” a one-flap trill.

Und seiner Rede Zauberfluss

I’m not quite sure if Faust really got some magic in his speech by the devil or if it is just the huge difference in the use of language between Faust’s scholarly background and Gretchen’s simple one. In the end, it’s of no importance WHY his words have mesmerized her only that they did.

The agitation that has started earlier (when exactly is up to you, whether you already start it at the description of his figure or at the face) becomes more intense.

To bind “und seine “ smoothly together, prolong the N at the end of “und” a bit and set the T (D at the end of a word is pronounced T) as the starting sound of the next word: un-tseine

The first E in “Rede” is closed, the second one is open. Both syllables are on the same note length and should be sung accordingly.

I recommend pronouncing the R in “Zauberfluss” as vocalic R (i.e. dropping it off), because this is easier for the legato line.

Sein Händedruck und ach, sein Kuss

Gretchen is reliving her last encounter with Faust when he had kissed her. The agitation culminates in this kiss and Gretchen even stops the paddle of the spinning wheel (or slips off it) when lingering on the remembrance of the kiss.

Ä and E in “Händedruck” sound almost the same which can complicate the matter a bit but with a bit of practice you’ll manage to pronounce it as [hƐndə].

The U in Kuss is open which may be a challenge regarding that the word is sung on a fermata.

Mein Busen drängt sich nach ihm hin

“Busen” means ‘bosom’ and is also a synonym for ‘heart’ which is interesting as both, her love but also her awakening lust push her towards Faust.

The following vowels in this line are closed: U in “Busen”, A in “nach” and I in “ihm”.

Alhough tempting, don’t breathe after “sich” but hold the legato until “hin”.

The consonant cluster in “drängt sich” may be a challenge: pronounce every consonant clearly, EXCEPT the G and bear in mind that the S in “sich” is voiced.

Ach, dürft ich fassen und halten ihn

The movement becomes more passionate.

„fassen“ is not exactly ‘touching’ but rather ‘seizing someone (passionately)’ which is what Gretchen wants to do with Faust. The fact that she thinks about her becoming active is unusual for the time where the man had the active part and the woman the receiving one. This is why she says ‘if only I were allowed to…’

Both, “ich” and “ihn” start with a little glottal onset. To hold the legato, I recommend not doing the onset too harshly but smoothly bind “dürft ich” and “halten ihn” together – without smearing two words into one, of course!

Und küssen ihn, so wie ich wollt

Gretchen not only wants to grab Faust and hold him but also kiss him (and probably more). She gets completely caught up in her desire.

Pronounce the S in „so” voiced (the double S in “küssen” is, of course, unvoiced).

„ihn“ vs. „ich“: the first I is long and closed, the second one is open.

“so” vs. “wollt”: the first O is long and closed, the second one is open

An seinen Küssen vergehen sollt

„vergehen“ is translated as ‘dying’ but actually it means vanishing, melting or dissolving. In this case, I guess, Gretchen speaks of ‘melting into Faust’ or ‘becoming one’ with him.

‘Dying as translation, however, is also justifiable when we become aware that in French a sexual climax is sometimes referred to as “la petite mort”, ‘the small death’.

I know it’s tempting to add H’s to “seinen” and “vergehen”, especially as they are sung on several notes but please pay attention that you don’t do that. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf would turn in her grave.

Summary

Gretchen is a very young, plain girl who has fallen madly in love and can’t talk about it to anyone but only to herself in an inner monologue.

She is very authentic in her feelings as she is not used to pretending or lying.

Transporting her inner turmoil, her restlessness, her despair, the butterflies in her stomach, her desire and love is the high art of this song. You as a singer are to show us these alternating emotions without becoming overly dramatic.

Below I’ve attached YouTube videos with recordings of this song.

The first is with Christa Ludwig:

The second is sung by Barbara Bonney:

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.