Franz Schubert: String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, “Death and the Maiden”

Program notes for Tippet Rise Art Center, August 11, 2018.
© Benjamin Pesetsky 2018. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Give me your hand, you fair and tender form!
I am a friend and do not come to punish.
Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,
You shall sleep softly in my arms!

These words are from the poem “Der Tod und das Mädchen” by Matthias Claudius, which became Franz Schubert’s song “Death and the Maiden,” which became the basis for the second movement of his String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor. The unspeakable mystery lies in whether the claim is true: is death a gentle friend, or is it a terrible seduction?

The D-minor Quartet, through all four movements, sits on the question and equivocates. Schubert gives even the grimmest passages a certain tenderness, creating an unsettling beauty.

In 1824, Schubert was quite ill, almost certainly in one of the later stages of syphilis. After a period of hospitalization, a new regimen of porridge, tea, and curative baths seemed to offer some improvement, and he soon wrote two quartets in quick succession between January and March: the Quartet No. 13 in A Minor, “Rosamunde,” and Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, “Death and the Maiden.” On the last day of March, he wrote a letter to his friend, Josef Kupelwieser:

I find myself to be the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world. Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and who in sheer despair continually makes things worse and worse instead of better; imagine a man, I say, whose most brilliant hopes have perished, to whom the felicity of love and friendship have nothing to offer but pain at best, whom enthusiasm (at least of the stimulating variety) for all things beautiful threatens to forsake, and I ask you, is he not a miserable, unhappy being? “My peace is gone, my heart is sore, I shall find it nevermore.” I might as well sing every day now, for upon retiring to bed each night I hope that I may not wake again, and each morning only recalls yesterday’s grief.

The music of the D-minor quartet, however, wallows less than the words of Schubert’s letter: it is a more sophisticated consideration of what he knew was to come. And though death was indeed not so far away, the piece was certainly not a last statement. Schubert continued to work ambitiously for another four years, completing a fifteenth quartet, two piano trios, and the “Great” C-major Symphony, among many other pieces, before death finally took him in 1828, at age 31.

The first movement of the quartet starts with a jolt, the string quartet equivalent of the opening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Schubert’s opening triplet figure generates much of the movement, providing both thematic material and a nervous pulse. The middle section starts with another jolt, in this case a surprising C-major chord, before continuing into frenetic development with sweeter interludes. A loose recapitulation leads to a chilling coda.

The second movement, Andante con moto, takes its theme from the piano part of “Der Tod und das Mädchen,” Schubert’s song from 1817. It was not unusual for Schubert to revisit music from earlier songs in later instrumental music, and he did not necessarily want listeners to make the connection back to the original text. Rather, it was a way to write with material he had already imbued with a certain feeling, lifting it from the literary realm into the splendid ambiguities of abstract music. (Which is not to say he made any secret of the source, which his friends would have immediately recognized.) Schubert leads the “Death and the Maiden” theme through five variations, the first reintroducing the triplet figure from the previous movement, the second giving the melody to the cello, the third uniting the quartet in fortissimo gestures, the fourth whimsically in G major, and the fifth restoring the melodic clarity of the original theme. A sedate coda ends the movement in G major.

The sharp Scherzo leads to a fanciful Trio section, filled with chirping first violin, before the Scherzo repeats.

The concluding Presto follows the rhythms of the Italian tarantella, a feverish dance once thought to cure a certain kind of spider bite. The incessant pattern keeps disintegrating before coalescing again in unisons. In the Prestissimo coda, the quartet scurries toward its decisive conclusion.

“Death and the Maiden” was first rehearsed in Vienna on January 29, 1826, by the Schuppanzigh Quartet, the same ensemble that premiered many of Beethoven’s middle and late quartets. They gave the piece a private premiere on February 1, and though Schubert’s reputation continued to grow even as his health declined, the quartet was not published until 1831, almost three years after his death.