Death and the Maiden

Schubert was my favorite composer to play in quartet.  His music isn’t exactly easy (especially for me—I always had to practice twice as hard to sound half as good), but there is a clear melodic line in his music that is fun to toss around the group—Schubert’s gift of song is ever present in his music.  This gift for melody is prominently displayed in his most famous quartet, The Death and the Maiden, which inspired Ariel Dorfman to write the play of the same name. 

It is often a fool’s errand to connect the events in a composer’s life to his music and yet, late Schubert compositions do appear to reflect his melancholy. I should note in this regard that there is considerable debate regarding the cause of Schubert’s demise. The traditional narrative is that he had contracted syphilis during his wild years and, following a brief remission, the disease ultimately killed him. This narrative, however, finds little contemporaneous support and some historians have gone so far to dispute that Schubert even had syphillis to begin with. Regardless, Schubert was not a well man, always impoverished and often malnourished. Death hangs over his late works like an ever present shadow. 

Schubert’s String Quartet No.14 in D Minor is somewhat of a intra-personal Conversation. Seven years previously, Schubert had written a song, Der Tod und das Madchen, in which the titular Maiden begs Death to pass her by.  Death, implacable, replies: I am not rough, you shall sleep gently in my arms.  Early in his despair of what proved to be his impending mortality, Schubert returned to this song as the basic theme for a new string quartet.  And despair is exactly the right word here.  As Schubert wrote to his friend around this time: Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and who, in sheer despair over this, even makes things worse instead of better. Imagine a man, I say, whose most brilliant hopes have perished… Throughout the quartet, you can hear the Maiden’s initial terror right at the start, her plaintive appeals—typically the more lyrical violin passages—followed by dark replies of Death.  It is not hard to imagine this is Schubert pleading for his life, producing a work of such artistic brilliance as an offering to stave off the inevitable. 

The first movement opens with attacking triplets that give way a theme that meanders as it develops into a gallop. A second, more compact theme, emerges and is developed chromatically. Written in classical sonata form, Schubert repeats the exposition before heading off into a developent section of such sheer complexity that it defies description. Although Schubert’s penchant for long melodic lines distinguishes him from Beethoven, Schubert has learned his lessons well from his elder and is economical in his development of themes, using brief rhythmic motives, derived from the melody, and unexpected harmonic progressions to tease further emotive power out of the theme. A stentonian recapitulation sets the score for the heart of the quartet, the second movement.

The second movement is, as expected, a theme and variation on Schubdert’s own theme from his earlier song of the same title (D. 531). Yet the part of the song that Schubert chooses here is from the second part of the song where Death tells the Maiden that he is “a friend” and not to be feared. And yet, despite the seductiveness of the music, there is a disquieting presence lurking beneath–the product of clashing triplets agaainst duplets. This rhythmyic dissonance is resolved only in the last variation. Building in complexity, the variations seem to go from darkeness to light, especially when the music suddenly shifts from G Minor to G Major, an effect that seemingly lifts the score into the clouds.

The meditative mood is lifted with a rousing scherzo, which leads to the remarkable finale–based on a tarantella. This traditional Italian dance is well-known, thanks to midcentury popular artists, but in reality depicts the madness and death that results from being bitten by a tarantula. Perhaps that’s what Francis Ford Coppola was getting at in this classic scene from The Godfather.

Schubert lets it all hang out here. On first listening, it appears that Schubert is lurching from idea to idea, much like the poor man in the death throws of spider-poison induced madness. But upon repeat listening, Schubert is carefully plotting his ideas, developing them slowly and so obscurely that the music seems almost contemporary.

For one of my absolute favorite works of music ever, I’ve turned to the reliably over the top Takacs Quartet, who turned the emotional acousticity up to 11, especially in that ripping first movement.  And to give a nod to Schubert’s internal Conversation, here is the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with the original song on which the quartet is based.

Franz Schubert, Der Tod und das Madchen, D. 531:

Franz Schubert, Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, D. 810, “Der Tod und das Madchen”:

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