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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Schubert, Death, and the Maiden

There's something about Schubert which terrifies me. I've been trying to put my finger on it and I think it has to do with words. I spend a lot of my life describing music in words, and most of the time I feel up to the task of conveying at least something of a piece's true nature or a composer's inner self. But Schubert is different. Whenever I come to write about Schubert I feel inadequate to the task because the man's life and work stagger the imagination to such an extent as to almost seem fictitious.

I think part of it is that we are so used to Schubert being at the core of the classical mainstream that we forget just how young he was when he created so much of the music we know and adore. Schubert wrote some of the greatest songs ever conceived while a teenager: Erl-king was written when he was 18, Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel when he was 17. The "Unfinished" symphony, the Mass in A flat, and the "Trout" quintet were all written in his 20s.

And he was dead at 31, leaving a staggering legacy of hundreds of miraculous compositions.

Today I want to talk about one of the saddest yet most powerful works Schubert produced. Sad, because it stems from personal tragedy, and powerful because it expresses that tragedy in almost defiant terms. And he wrote it when he was only 27.

Rieder: Franz Schubert (1825)

Around the start of 1823, just before he turned 26, Schubert contracted an illness nowadays generally regarded as syphilis. The diagnosis was not spelled out in such blunt terms in Schubert's lifetime because of the social stigma of a sexually-contracted disease, but the vivid descriptions which remain of his symptoms - plus many references to his sexual activity - leave little doubt. And in the early 19th century, syphilis was incurable.

A year later, in early 1824, Schubert knew that he was seriously ill. Over the preceding year he'd been in and out of hospital and had had periods of relative wellness in between bouts of debilitating sickness. But he continued to compose, and rather than being hampered by his illness, it seemed it to open new horizons for him, creating new depths of feeling, and a new desire to find a place in posterity.

It therefore doesn't seem strange that a song Schubert composed back in 1817 should have come to mind. The song - called Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden) - is short and direct. A maiden begs the figure of Death to pass her by because she is enjoying life too much, but Death replies that he comes as a friend, to bring rest rather than fear. This performance by Jessye Norman and Dalton Baldwin runs concurrently with the score. [listen]

Baldung: Death and the Maiden (1517)

Death's final line is translated as, "You shall sleep gently in my arms", a positive view of death which is coloured by the 20-year old Schubert ending in the tranquil major key.

Now, seven years later and in the secondary stages of what was then a horrible terminal disease, he set about composing music which, given his circumstances, almost defies description. He had always been a prolific, driven composer who turned out piece after piece at an astonishing rate. Now he turned out masterpiece after masterpiece at an astonishing rate. In 1824 - after writing a set of variations for flute and piano based on a theme from his song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin - he returned to the string quartet, a form he had attempted with moderate success in his earlier years. He had started a quartet four years before, producing an unfinished C minor quartet now known as the "Quartet Movement", D703. This amazing piece showed Schubert moving into totally new worlds in the quartet form but in 1820 he was unequipped to finish what he had started. Now in 1824 he wrote two string quartets which showed he had the skill and vision to continue the journey hinted at before.

The first quartet of 1824 was the A minor quartet D804 [listen]. This piece is often called the "Rosamunde" quartet because its second movement is based on a theme from his earlier incidental music for the play of that name. This quartet was completed within a few weeks, after which he wrote - in an even shorter period - another quartet, based on the song, Death and the Maiden.

This quartet, known as the "Death and the Maiden" quartet, is Schubert's outpouring of his feelings about death. It is of almost unrelenting ferocity and darkness, with only a few moments of major key lightness to alleviate what is otherwise an emotionally tortured and exhausting work. It's tempting to read into the ebbs and flows of the quartet's first movement all sorts of things but I'd rather you experience this opening movement in one hit to make your own conclusions. The alternation between tension and relaxation is what really stands out to me, and the fact that Schubert was aware that he was dying when he wrote it makes it all the more overwhelming. The first movement covers the first 12’25 of this video, which also runs concurrently with the score. [listen]

It's in the second movement that Schubert makes his connection between this piece and death completely clear, with the introduction of the material drawn from the 1817 song, Death and the Maiden. He uses music from the song associated with Death's reply to the maiden, rather than the agitated pleas of the maiden herself. From this he fashions a binary theme in which each half is repeated; upon this theme builds a series of variations. The overall mood is one of restraint and elegance...and inevitability. But we do well to remember Death's words in the song were designed to comfort the maiden, not terrify her, in the face of her impending demise. Schubert is here sharing the inevitability of his death and the positive view of it as a release from the world and its trials.

After we hear the theme stated at the beginning, the first variation sees the theme played more nervously in the second violin's and viola's triplets, and the cello's pizzicato. The first violin soars over this in nervous flight which is reminiscent of the maiden's pleas in the song.

The second variation shines the spotlight on the cello with a high-soaring melody which embellishes the theme. The actual theme itself is hidden in the twitchy, nervous accompaniment in the upper three instruments.

The third variation dresses the theme in a driving rhythm which is initially heard in all four instruments at once. The sudden drop to pianissimo in the second half of the movement is quite a shock, but the overall feeling is of pent up anger.

Unlike the theme and the first two variations, the third variation doesn't end in the major key. It has as stern and uncompromising an ending as you could imagine. This is followed in the fourth variation by one of the few passages in the whole quartet which provides some relief from the otherwise unrelenting tone of ferocity. The fourth variation is entirely in the major key, with the first violin soaring, angel-like, over a major key reworking of the theme in the lower three instruments.

This flows without a break into the fifth and final variation in which the music returns to the minor key. This variation is of terrifying darkness, but the rhythmic subdivisions become slower until the movement ends in longer notes and a peace, of sorts, with a major key restatement of part of the theme.

The second movement begins at 12’29 in the video. [listen]

Lévy: Death and the Maiden (1900)

The quartet's third movement returns to the tonic key of D minor in a scherzo which thrusts us, at first, back into the turbulent, angry world of the first movement. Dramatic changes of volume and violent accents and syncopations are features of this music which one writer has described as the "dance of the demon fiddler".

The central trio section is a complete contrast. It's in the major key, and while it uses some of the same rhythms from the main scherzo section, there is none of the violent accenting of offbeats which characterise the opening section. The scherzo is then repeated after this gentle interlude to thrust us back to sad reality.

The third movement begins at 26’28 in the video. [listen]

The finale is a work of manic genius, in the form of a tarantella. It is truly a "dance of death" but one fascinating fact links it with the other three movements. This is the tendency for phrases to start in the minor key but end in the major. This was particularly true of the song theme in the slow movement but it happens throughout the piece, perhaps nowhere more so than in this manic, nervous, spasm-ridden finale.

In the midst of this comes a theme in long notes, heard in two episodes, which one writer has identified as being from Schubert's song The Erl-king. The Erl-king tells the story of a father riding his horse at breakneck speed through a forest on a stormy night. In his arms is his child. The child sees the Erl-king, a spirit of death, but the father dismisses the child's pleas. The child cries in increasing panic only to have the father try to soothe him with kind words as they ride on. When the father reaches what he thinks is the safety of home he realises that his child is dead.

The melody heard in the quartet's finale is reminiscent of the Erl-king's seductive song to the child, and if this allusion is true then it's an appropriate one, given Death's comforting words to the maiden in the song which inspired the variations.

At the end Schubert manipulates the frantic music of the tarantella into the major key and for a moment it seems as if there will be a happy ending of sorts, but this is - like so much else - an illusion. The music ends in the darkness of the D minor in which it began, and Schubert drops us in an exhausted heap with not so much as an apology or an explanation. The journey itself through his anger and regret is its own reward, take it or leave it. This is the other side of the genial, graceful Schubert we know and sometimes prefer to remember. This is the Schubert of the ferocious technique and uncompromising power, a dark spirit who can do with us what he will.

The fourth movement begins at 30’21 in the video. [listen]

The "Death and the Maiden" quartet was written in March 1824. At the end of that month Schubert wrote a letter to his friend, the artist Leopold Kupelwieser. It makes heartbreaking reading, especially coming from the pen of a 27 year old who should by rights be entering into his maturity with much to look forward to:

I feel as if I am the unhappiest, most miserable man on earth. Imagine a man whose health will never be regained, and whose despair at the thought makes things increasingly worse, rather than better; imagine a man, I tell you, whose brightest hopes have come to nothing, to whom happiness in love and friendship offers nothing but the greatest pain, for whom enthusiasm for what is beautiful threatens to disappear, and ask yourself if that isn't a miserable and unhappy man?

As if that wasn't sad enough, he goes on to quote a famous line from one of his most famous songs, the start of Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel:

Meine Ruh ist hin, mein Herz ist schwer, ich finde sie nimmer und nimmer mehr... (My peace is gone, my heart is heavy, never and never more shall I find peace...)

Kupelwieser: Self Portrait (c. 1813)

Yet in the same letter Schubert tells Kupelwieser of his plans to compose better than ever before. With this D minor quartet only just finished he planned to write another and to eventually create a grand symphony. As it turned out Schubert had four and a half years left to him and in that time he did much, much more than just write another quartet (which he did) and the grand symphony (which he also did). But that's another story.

We'll finish by hearing Kiri Te Kanawa and Richard Amner in the song whose text Schubert quoted in that tragic letter of 1824, Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in October, 2010.

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