Violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh and his quartet were busy with challenging new works in the mid-1820s: Beethoven had produced his five ‘late quartets’ for Schuppanzigh’s ensemble. And then there was Schubert, who produced three great quartets in the period 1824-26. The D minor ‘Death and the Maiden’ was performed at a private concert early in 1826. At the rehearsal, according to one story, Schuppanzigh told Schubert that it was ‘no good. Go back to your songs’! Of course, he had ‘gone back to his songs’ in this quartet and the ‘Trout’ quintet. Schubert’s returning to his 1817 song, Death and the Maiden, at this point in his life is particularly poignant. In early 1823 he developed symptoms of syphilis, then a terminal disease; his health would deteriorate over the next years. In Matthias Claudius’s poem, a young woman pleads with Death: ‘Pass by, you cruel skeleton! I am still young... leave me untouched.’ And Death replies:
Give me your hand, you pretty, sweet creature, I am your friend; I have not come to punish you. Be of good courage! For I am not cruel; Gently, in my arms, you shall sleep.
In the song, the maiden’s music is agitated and unstable, while Death has a serene, hymnal voice, and that is what forms the theme for the set of five variations and a coda in the slow movement of his D minor quartet. Some commentators have suggested that the first movement, with its passionate unison gesture at the start and the ebb and flow of emotional tension that ensues, ‘represents’ the maiden’s terror in this quartet. Be that as it may, the movement’s dramatic surges and enigmatic ending make for a perfect contrast with the chorale-like chords and simple rhythm of the ‘Death’ music that follows.
The second movement explores a number of emotional implications of the theme, but closes as it began, in resigned serenity. The pithy Scherzo has a deliberately strenuous manner, contrasting with long-breathed lyricism in the central, major-key Trio.
Much more dance-like is the finale, the first theme’s insistent triplets recalling the tarantella. The second theme of this sonata-design movement – passed from instrument to instrument amid a scampering of triplets – recalls in contour, rhythm and phrasing another early song of Schubert which deals with the ambiguities of fear and seduction as another young person is taken before his time: Erlkönig.
Program notes © Gordon Kerry 2018