In the Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations, Miss Havisham has withdrawn from the world, devastated by the betrayal of her groom-to-be on their wedding day. Years later, she still sits in her bridal gown, the wedding feast (now mouldy and dust-covered) still on the table. In 1812, Franz Schubert scored his first art song success with Gretchen am Spinnrade, in which Gretchen sits at her spinning wheel, working away hypnotically while she anxiously awaits the return of her beloved Faust. As Goethe’s poem tells us, her peace is gone, her heart is heavy. The piano accompaniment mimics the turning of the wheel, speeding up and slowing down as Gretchen is repeatedly distracted by thoughts of her lover, the harmonies shifting with her moods.
Miss Havisham am Spinnrade brings together these two 19th-century inspirations by imagining that Faust never returned, and Gretchen, like Miss Havisham, never stopped waiting, still spinning two centuries after Schubert immortalised her in song. She works madly, blank-eyed, stifling her weeping, for a moment losing herself in the fantasy of a wedding waltz that will never happen, yet unable to stop the wheel from turning.
Miss Havisham am Spinnrade is dedicated to bassoonist Sophie Dansereau with thanks for her invaluable advice. It was made possible through an Artist Grant from the Canada Council for the Arts.