Music of the Spinning Wheel


This is an excerpt from my article Purring and Whirring: Music of the Spinning Wheel.

19th century music title pages

The subject suggested itself to me many years ago when I was sorting through a large quantity of 19th century music prints. It was the remains of the stock of a music shop, that had lain forgotten in an attic for several decades. Among the standard evocative titles of ‘character pieces’, titles such as La source, Rêverie, Les sylphes, there were a considerable number that referred to the craft of spinning: Spinnerlied, Die Spinnerin, Am Spinnrad, Chanson du rouet, La fileuse, etc. Mostly it was second rate salon music for piano. As with today’s commercial pop music, the visual presentation (then title pages, now video) is often more striking than the music itself.

The titles of these pieces are usually justified by a certain type of pianistic figuration, that is supposed to evoke spinning or the rotating spinning wheel. What interested me at the time was the question of whether such patterns form an identifiable type; how suggestive they actually are of what they’re supposed to represent; and why this representation works, or doesn’t work.

Purring, Whirring, Humming, Buzzing…

Besides piano music, there are a large (and maybe larger) number of vocal compositions related to spinning. Some of these evoke the spinning wheel, some do not. Many of the poems are folksongs or pseudo-folksongs. The earliest musical representations of the spinning wheel known to me are two songs by Johann Abraham Peter Schulz, included in his Lieder im Volkston (vol. 3, 1790): Spinnerlied (on a text by G.A. Bürger), and Die Spinnerin (by J.H. Voß). These represent two distinct poetic types: the first is a cheerful work song, typically sung by a group of women in chorus; the other, a sad and solitary spinner’s monologue.

As a primarily female occupation, spinning is associated with traditional female virtues – viewed from a predominantly male perspective. According to Bürger’s Spinnerlied, “Diligence, piety and modesty attract worthy suitors” (Fleißig, fromm und sittsam seyn / Locket wackre Freyer). The typical ambience where young women could show their diligence and attract suitors is the Spinnstube, the spinning room or spinning bee (the German word means both). It was also a place where one could enjoy storytelling and singing during the work, and the presence of young men provided an opportunity for flirtation and courtship. As might be expected, that often ended in rowdy parties; but the Spinnstube’s bad reputation seems not to have been a theme for poetry and drama.

In a room with several spinners, the noise of the wheels, mixed with singing and other sounds creates a special atmosphere. Goethe has described this as a particular sonic environment, a kind of soundscape or rather ‘sound interior’:

In such an environment, new and peculiar feelings forced themselves upon me; the whirring wheels have a certain eloquence, the girls sing psalms, and also other songs, though less frequently. Siskins and goldfinches in suspended cages chirp through it all, and one could not easily imagine a more industrious life than in a room where several spinners are at work. (Goethe, Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, Romane und Novellen III, DTV 1994, p. 342; my transl.)

In Bürger’s Spinnerlied, the noise of the wheels is a central element: Hurre, hurre, hurre! Schnurre, Rädchen, schnurre! (The now obsolete German hurren is a similar onomatopoeia as  ‘hurrying’, and relates to both sound and speed.)

In both the Spinnerlied and Die Spinnerin, Schulz attempts to suggest something of the restlessness of the spinning wheel through the use of a trill figure in the accompaniment. It is a simple pattern, quite common in keyboard music: the trill is played with thumb and index of the left hand, leaving the other fingers free to play bass notes. In the Spinnerlied, this is done in the crudest manner. It is somewhat more sophisticated in Die Spinnerin. Again there is a trill in the left hand, but this time it moves restlessly up and down, and is interrupted to match the text (mein Spinnerädchen will gar nicht gehn / My spinning wheel won’t run). The spinner’s mind is not on her work, for she is thinking of the unknown young man with whom she has “rested in the clover”.

J.A.P. Schulz, Die Spinnerin, recorded with a digitized 1790 Schanz piano. Lodewijk Muns, April 2023.

While the ‘purring’ sound of the spinning wheel is a recurrent poetic and musical motif, it seems not to have been much appreciated merely for its quiet monotony – a quality for which spinning is nowadays praised as a relaxing, even therapeutic activity, witness the numerous home videos of spinning nowadays posted on the internet (“only spinning – no talking”). Unlike these modern spinners, the solitary spinner of the poetic tradition finds no solace in her work. Its monotony leaves her mind free to wander, to grieve for a love lost or unrealised, or to be carried away by erotic fantasies. Seduction, abandonment and unwanted pregnancy may be her tragic fate.

A few years later than Schulz, Haydn has set Bürger’s Spinnerlied as a solo with choral refrain in his oratorio Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons, Winter, No. 34, 1801). In his orchestral accompaniment Haydn introduces a different type of ‘spinning’ figure: a revolving chord, that (with some goodwill) may suggest the rotating wheels. To this he adds a drone bass, a standard musical pattern for creating a rustic setting. It is those three elements that distinguish most spinning ‘wheel music’: the trill figure and the rotating chord; either of which may be combined with a drone bass.

Left: In the anonymous folksong Mägdelein in dunkler Nacht a mother adhorts her daughter to go on spinning: “Tomorrow your lover will come”. The girl kept spinning, tears flowing, her suitor never came. The song still enjoyed popularity in the early 20th century as a picture postcard subject. Right: An uncommon variation on the theme of the dreaming spinner: no longer lonely, she fantasises about having a child (Germany, ca. 1870?).

Gretchen and Thereafter

The paradigmatic embodiment of the lonely spinner is Gretchen in Goethe’s Faust. Like Voß’ nameless spinner, she is a girl longing for her lover, her wandering thoughts distracting her from her monotonous labour. Goethe’s text does not refer to the wheel, other than in the stage direction (“Gretchen at the spinning wheel, alone”), which Schubert took as title for his setting, Gretchen am Spinnrade (1814). This first German ‘art song’ distinguishes itself from the traditionally simple and folksy Lied, by being, in fact, a dramatic monologue, in which the stage action has its audible realisation in the music. It is in fact a dramatic monologue, in which the stage action has its audible realisation in the music. Although we can also interpret the accompaniment in Schulz’s Spinnerin as a dramatic element, this remains within the bounds of the traditional lied (the music is repeated for the remaining two strophes). In representing the action of spinning in the piano part, Schubert no doubt adopted elements from Haydn’s Spinnerlied with its revolving chords, but these are completely transformed in the flow of Gretchen’s emotions.

Franz Schubert, arr. Franz Liszt, Gretchen am Spinnrade, Lodewijk Muns, May 2023.

All through the nineteenth century one may find variations on both poetic themes, Spinnerin and Spinnerlied, and both musical types, the trill and the revolving chord. Mendelssohn’s Lied ohne Worte op. 67 No. 4 (1843) is perhaps the most succesful of the many salon ‘spinning’ pieces. Although the traditional title Spinnerlied does not have the composer’s authority, the piece shares enough features with the previous examples to justify it. Notable is its transformation of the opening bars: a rotation that looks and sounds like a shrunken version of Gretchen’s spinning wheel turns into a trill figure. Its texture could be that of an accompanied female chorus.

Nearly of the same date (1842/43) is the spinning chorus in Wagner’s opera Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), the second representation (as far as I know) of a spinning bee in opera history; the first was Schubert’s Fierrabras, which however was not performed until 1897. Wagner’s text seems to have been modelled on Bürger’s Spinnerlied, with the spinners spurring on their spinning wheels (Summ und brumm, du gutes Rädchen, “Purr and whirr, my little wheel”), and with references to diligence and courtship in the dialogue. At the same time Wagner introduces the motif of the lonely spinner, or actually non-spinner, embodied in the heroine Senta, who sits apart, gazing at a portrait of the lover of her dreams, the doomed Dutchman.

Wagner’s Spinnerlied is basically of the trill type, but its layered texture uses several ingredients in a more complex soundscape. It includes a complementary rhythm of the bass and second violins, producing what is in effect the keyboard figure of the interrupted trill, this time in triplets; this may suggest a continuous mechanical movement, if not actually rotation. This keyboard figure, among other things, has allowed Liszt to transform it into a very effective virtuoso piano solo.

Franz Liszt, Spinnerlied aus Der fliegende Holländer von Richard Wagner, Lodewijk Muns, April 2023.

Once it was an established convention, the title Spinnerlied or Fileuse was somewhat liberally applied to a range of related patterns. The idea of quietly noisy, continuous movement could serve as a point of departure for the invention of new patterns of musical motion and for explorations of timbre. Spinning wheels make a ‘purring’ sound by reputation, but it is doubtful whether the composers of such pieces had more knowledge of the sound and working of the spinning wheel than that. In the final analysis it may remain ambiguous what is represented, whether the pattern is modelled on the sound of one or more spinning wheels, or on the movement that produces the sound; whether the movement is actually rotation, or simply some continuous, mechanical going-on.

See the more extensive discussion in Purring and Whirring: Music of the Spinning Wheel.