Mastering One of the Most Daunting Quartets in the Literature

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How to breathe life into Schubert's String Quartet in D minor, No. 14, D. 810, 'Death and the Maiden'

Of Franz Schubert's 15 string quartets, 11 were written before he was 20. They were composed for his family ensemble - an invaluable training ground for a developing young genius, though naturally influenced by Haydn and Mozart, these teenage works clearly harbor the seeds of future greatness, and when he returned to the quartet medium close to the end of his tragically short life (1797-1828), they had come to full fruition.

Now at the pinnacle of his creative power, he produced three supreme masterpieces: the String Quartets No. 13 in A minor D. 804, (1824), called "Rosamunde" because it borrows a theme from the 1823 incidental music to the play of that name; No. 15 in G major D. 887 (1826); and No. 14 in D minor D. 810 (1824-1826), called "Death and the Maiden" because its slow movement is based on the song of that name. That latter quartet also quotes a theme from the mournful Goethe song "Der Erlkönig" (1815), in the finale, but its melodic line is inverted, so it is frequently overlooked. A fourth quartet, D. 703, begun in 1820, remained unfinished: there is only a single, rivetingly dramatic first movement in C minor and a fragment of a second.

These quotes have led to the conjecture that Schubert was withdrawing into the past because the present was barren, the future hopeless. But you must remember that this was one of his favorite compositional devices: for example, the "Wanderer" Fantasy for piano (1822) gets its name from its variations on the 1816 song "The Wanderer." And he must have loved the "Rosamunde" melody: he used it again later in a piano piece.

Schubert's final years were beset by struggle, crises, and misfortunes.

Though convinced of his calling and his genius ("I was born to do nothing but compose," he said), he spent many years trying to free himself from Beethoven's overpowering example. And it cannot have been easy to interest Vienna's frivolous, dance- and entertainment-loving public in serious new string quartets. But the most devastating blow was the discovery that he had contracted syphilis, then an incurable, fatal disease with dire personal and social consequences. He described his anguish in a letter to a friend: "I am the most wretched, unhappy of men. Every night when I go to bed, I pray that I may not wake up in the morning. . . ."

His last works were written literally in the shadow of death, sometimes in feverish haste, as though he knew time was running out. It seems miraculous that he could write works filled with radiant sunshine, vitality, and optimism, like the Great C major Symphony. The quartets, however, always reserved for expressing a composer's deepest, most intimate feelings, unmistakably reveal his despondency, desolation, and preoccupation with death.


It seems clear that, with the exception of the song-cycle "Winterreise" (A Winter's Journey, 1827), which describes a pilgrimage in search of death so bleak that it even frightened and repelled his closest friends, "Death and the Maiden" represents Schubert's most direct confrontation with death. It cannot have been an accident that he chose that song for the quartet's slow movement (Andante con moto), but surely it is significant that he used only the consoling second verse.

In the first, an agitated recitative, a maiden pleads with Death, the "wild skeleton-man," to spare her young life. In the second, over a solemn chorale in the piano, he replies: "Give me your hand, you delicate, lovely creature. I am your friend and do not come to punish. Be not afraid! I am not wild. You shall sleep peacefully in my arms."

Schubert made a four-part setting of the choral in G minor, but ending in G major. It became the theme for five contrasting variations, unified by their harmonic structure.

In the first variation, the theme is carried by the middle voices while the first violin surrounds it with wide-ranging flights of arpeggios. …