String Quartet in D minor, D. 810, “Death and the Maiden”
March 6, 2016: The Escher String Quartet
Schubert composed two of his most powerful works in an amazingly short time—the A minor Quartet between February and March 1824, and the D minor Quartet by the end of that March. He intended to add a third quartet and publish them together, but he did not return to the medium until 1826 when he wrote the equally masterful G major Quartet, and only the A minor was published during his lifetime. The D minor Quartet was not taken up by a publisher until three years after Schubert’s death, perhaps because his contemporaries were not ready for the intense world this Quartet projects.
The Schuppanzigh Quartet, which premiered many of the Beethoven quartets, did rehearse the work in January 1826 at the home of Schubert’s friend Franz Lachner, and performed it privately on February 1 at the home of Josef Barth. Lachner reported, however, that Ignaz Schuppanzigh’s rendering of the first violin part left much to be desired and that he exclaimed to Schubert, “My dear fellow, this is no good, leave it alone; you stick to your songs!” Undaunted, Schubert went on to compose the third of his projected group, but the D minor’s trial performance may have had a negative effect on publication prospects.
The Quartet’s nickname “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (Death and the Maiden), though not used by Schubert, stems from the theme of the slow movement, which he had refashioned from his 1817 song of that title (D. 531). The text, a Matthias Claudius poem, is actually a scene from a Totentanz (dance of death) in which Death dances with a number of human partners, one of whom is the Maiden. The dancers characteristically show the widely divergent attitudes of defiance and acceptance. There has been considerable discussion, however, about how far one can take the death imagery, especially since the other movements are musically unrelated, and the source for the powerful Scherzo is one of Schubert’s hundreds of innocuous German dances for piano.
On the other hand, Schubert did reach a nadir of low sprits and ill health in March 1824, culminating in his famous letter to Leopold Kupelweiser on March 31. Expressing his despair in a manner similar to Beethoven’s “Heiligenstadt Testament,” Schubert says he might as well sing “My peace is gone, my heart is sore, I shall find it never and nevermore” (from his “Gretchen am Spinnrade”) since every night he goes to bed hoping not to wake again. Throughout the month he also jotted random thoughts in a notebook, which make it clear that through all his pain and suffering the ability to compose is his shining light. If his despair is in fact reflected in the dark intensity of the Quartets from that month, they also project the sheer glory of significant musical achievement.
The D minor Quartet’s urgently driven first movement presents a defiant mood at the outset with a dramatic opening gesture. Many times during the movement Schubert seems to imagine an entire orchestra at his disposal, an idea reinforced by his statement to Kupelweiser that his three-quartet project was part of his intent to “pave my way towards grand symphony.” Despite a lilting second theme, a dark atmosphere permeates, and the coda seems to close in musical sobs.
Schubert fashioned the theme for the slow movement’s variations not from the vocal melody of “Death and the Maiden” but from the piano prelude and part of the accompaniment. The simplicity of his grief-laden pulsing chords lends itself extremely well to variations, throughout which he maintains his basic harmonic progression. Schubert’s fertile imagination provides the first violin with passages that rank far above mere decoration and the cello with some wonderful acrobatics. He is also able to turn his somber chords into lively “hunt music” at one point. The minor-mode casts a certain seriousness over much of the movement, but the luminous contrast of the G major variation and the coda’s peaceful ending suggest a kind of transfigured quality—acceptance?—amid the darkness.
The Scherzo again suggests defiance with its syncopations and sforzando jabs. It is utterly remarkable how Schubert was able to transform the sixth German Dance, D. 790, into a movement of such forceful energy. The Trio provides a sweet respite, in which the first violin takes a delicate flight of fancy.
The Finale, a dark-hued saltarello (leaping dance), has been characterized as a Danse macabre and its galloping main theme may bring to mind another of Schubert’s legendary treatments of Death—his earlier song “Der Erlkönig.” These associations, however, may never have been made without knowing the song origin of the slow movement. The final movement, a grand sonata form with touches of rondo, is one of Schubert’s most riveting and energetic with its several tempestuous climaxes and breathless Prestissimo conclusion.
© Jane Vial Jaffe