Programme notes for “Death and the Maiden”

These notes are reproduced from the original programme notes for the Whittington International Chamber Music Schubert Fest 2014 and are copyright Christopher Symons.

String Quartet No 14 in D minor, D.810, ‘Death and the Maiden’ 

Perhaps the greatest of all Schubert’s string quartets! When (in 1820) he wrote the C minor ‘Quartettsatz’, he entered upon his final run of mature string quartets – the very pinnacle of which is surely this evening’s D.810. Written in 1824 (like this evening’s opening work), it once again takes its inspiration from one of his own songs, ‘Der Tod und Das Mädchen’ (1817). It was written at a time of increasing illness (syphilis) when his mental and emotional state was at a low ebb. This is graphically illustrated in a letter of March of that year:  ‘I feel myself the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world. Picture to yourself someone whose health will never be right again…someone whose most brilliant hopes have come to nothing, someone to whom love and friendship have nothing to offer but bitterness, someone whose creative inspiration (for all that it is beautiful) threatens to fail – and then ask yourself if that is not a miserable and unhappy being. Every night when I go to bed I hope never to awaken again, and each morning I am only recalled to yesterday’s grief.’  A work of almost unrelenting intensity and drama, its funereal and minor sonority (in all four movements) casts a sombre shroud, enveloping the work in a miasma of darkness.  Yet it is this very unity and uniformity of mood that makes the work so powerfully beautiful – if unbearable – and raises it to the highest pedestal in the quartet repertoire. It is a compositional tour de force: the part-writing is breathtaking, the textures clear, colourful and ever-changing:  his lyricism abounds, his rhythms amaze, and his formal schemes are the most taut of any of his late chamber works. There are four movements.

I  Allegro  A dark, harrowing and powerful opening gesture eventually gives way to a contrasting, gentler and more resigned theme: perhaps this represents the grim apparition of Death confronting a tender maiden – or, more precisely, a terrified maiden and the gentle wooing of death?

The Maiden:
‘Oh leave me! Prithee, leave me!
Thou grisly man of bone!
For life is sweet, is pleasant.
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!’

II Andante con moto   It is now that he makes use of the second half of his ‘Death and the Maiden’  song: but now the melodic idea of the song becomes the starting point for a new song which is subjected to five variations.

III Scherzo: Allegro molto    The vigorous, blustery opening contrasts powerfully with sadness which permeates the Trio – lilting and lyrical, delicate and warm, and waltzing away ‘like a feather on a breeze’.

IV  Presto:   Almost demonic and propelled ever onward by a  breathless tarantella theme – a frantic, leaping dance in 6/8 time. Yet again the episodes rapidly juxtapose the severe and the suave in a swirling, deadly embrace. The tempo quickens into a manic pace until the last leap meets a fatal blow. As abruptly as it began the quartet meets its end. As Schumann said of another Schubert piece, ‘an angry comet races across the sky.’