Franz Schubert: Death and the Maiden
Composed in 1824, some four years before his death, Franz Schubert’s Fourteenth String Quartet, also known as Death and the Maiden, remains one of the pillars in Western chamber music. The work was first performed in a private house, and was not published until 1831, after Schubert’s death.
The title of the work and the overriding inspiration for this work comes from the lied Der Tod und das Mädchen, a setting of the poem of the same name that Schubert composed in 1817. The poem reads as follows:
“Oh! leave me! Prithee, leave me! thou grisly man of bone!
For life is sweet, is pleasant.
Go! leave me now alone!
Go! leave me now alone!”
“Give me thy hand, oh! maiden fair to see,
For I’m a friend, hath ne’er distress’d thee.
Take courage now, and very soon
Within mine arms shalt softly rest thee!”
The theme of death is heard throughout the quartet, with recurring themes and quotes from Schubert’s original 1817 song making appearances too. The thematic material is foreboding and foreshadows the fate of the maiden. Although largely regarded as absolute music, there are some arguments that say that the quartet is quasi-programmatic. Schubert experts have described the work as four episodes in the mythic process of death and resurrection.
Set into four highly contrasting movements, Death and the Maiden puts any quartet to some serious work.
Movement I – Allegro
The longest movement of the four, the opening movement starts with a violent unison pattern. In just the first fourteen bars, Schubert sets up the principal themes that are carried throughout all four movements. Walter Wilson Cobbett describes the opening movement as a “struggle with Death.” The opposing themes across the quartet highlights this idea, as well as the tension remaining taut throughout. The unison passages race through, creating a “relentless race through terror, pain and resignation, ending with a dying D minor chord.”
Throughout the whole quartet, but particularly in this opening movement, Schubert initiates a number of violent shifts of mood. After the terror of the opening passage, a contrasting pianissimo chorale theme plays out. These shifts are scattered throughout the movement until a recapitulation of the opening is heard. This is followed by a resurgence of life back into the music, before the music begins to slowly die away.
Movement II – Andante
Set as a theme with five variations, the slow second movement is largely based on the lied with the same name by Schubert. Each variation is unique in character, and after the calmer first two variations, a Sturm und Drang movement takes off. Coming back to its lyrical core, the fourth variation takes these ideas further, with the violin leading with a solo line. A restatement of the theme closes this movement in G minor.
Movement III – Scherzo
By far the shortest movement of the four, the jaunty scherzo movement has been described as “the dance of the demon fiddler.” Full of fast, angular melodies and syncopated unison sections, the dramatic character of this movement is the perfect remedy from the moody second movement. The movement is set up like a traditional minuet and trio, with the latter really giving the listener a slice of Schubert’s famous lyricism. The violin leads with the melody, with this section perhaps being the only one that gives you proper respite from the other dramatic movements. This movement is but a mere interlude to the dramatic finale.
Movement IV – Presto
Ending with a tarantella – a traditional dance used to ward off madness and death – the frantic finale movement starts as it means to go on. This movement is described as showcasing the character of death – with dark humour, ghastly visions and dissonant harmony. The light tarantella melody run through the veins of this movement, with the theme being passed between the quartet. The racing pace of the movement keeps the energy and excitement high as the quartet flutter around each other, sometimes unifying, but then quickly going their separate ways once more. The quartet finishes with a reinstatement of the opening theme before the texture is built back up for the thrilling finale.
Through character development, storytelling and complex music, Franz Schubert’s Death and the Maiden remains one of his finest chamber works. Although living through illness, poverty and depression at the time of composition, Death and the Maiden still showcases Schubert’s talents.
Ⓒ Alex Burns 2020
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