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Death and the Maiden

Following up on last month’s post, let’s return to the music of Franz Schubert. Now we’ll hear how Schubert cleverly turned the melody of one of his songs into the second movement of a string quartet.

Let’s start by listening to the song Death and the Maiden, written in 1817.  It’s performed here by the legendary contralto, Marian Anderson.  The text is from a poem by Matthias Claudius.  Follow the English translation below.

Death and the Maiden D.531…Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

The Maiden:

Pass me by! Oh, pass me by!
Go, fierce man of bones!
I am still young! Go, rather,
And do not touch me.
And do not touch me.

Death:

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

Did you notice all the ways Schubert musically evokes the mood of the poem? The repeated rhythm suggests a solemn funeral procession, perhaps a march towards inevitability.  We hold our breath in anticipation as the same note is repeated in the melody, while the harmony underneath changes.  One interesting aspect of the melody is that it modulates from the key of D minor to F major (1:39) and then slides back again.  These keys are related because they both have B-flat as their only accidental.  Did you notice the sudden and transformative shift to D major at the end?  Consider the significance of Schubert’s choice to turn minor into major at this moment.  What emotional impact does this create?

Eight years after writing this song, at a time when Schubert was confronting his own mortality, he returned to this melody for the second movement of a string quartet.  First you will hear the melody played simply, without embellishment. Then, Schubert launches into a series of brilliant variations that feature different instruments of the quartet.  It’s amazing how many new musical ideas and contrasting moods can spring from this simple tune!

String Quartet No. 14 in D minor (Death and the Maiden) D.810…Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

II. Andante con moto

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Now that you have heard this excerpt you may be inspired to listen to the other three movements of the quartet.  Pay attention to the exciting interplay between the four voices (two violins, a viola and a cello) as musical ideas are passed back and forth.  I think you’ll agree that from the fiery opening of the first movement to the fast and wild Presto it’s an exhilarating and sometimes terrifying musical roller coaster ride. Here are links to the rest of the piece: I. Allegro,  III. Scherzo Allegro molto IV. Presto.  

Leave a comment below and share your thoughts on the music.

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2 Responses to Death and the Maiden

  1. Anonymous November 8, 2012 at 11:22 am #

    Thank you very much for sharing this wonderful string quartet. The first time I listened to it was in a church in Sweden in wintertime. A young quartet was playing their hearts out. Since then I haven’t heard such a ambitious and emotional interpretation. It was a real inspiration.

  2. Peter Lim November 23, 2012 at 7:38 am #

    Schubert was an optimist despite the hardships of his life. His music always seems to be saying-
    beauty transcends pain and suffering. He seemed to be able to reconcile the two polarities despite not having any religious leanings. He refused to have the services of a priest when he was dying.
    If beauty is the ultimate and sublime, that is all -and nothing is wanting.
    He died at 31 and John Keats the great romantic poet at 25-both believed in the transcendence of love and beauty but Keats was a pessimistic:’ Now more than ever seems it rich to die/To cease upon the midnight with no pain/While *thou art pouring*? thy soul abroad in such an ecstasy ….(ODE TO THE NIGHTINGALE).
    Keats wrote to his brother who also died of TB saying that he was astonished that the human heart could bear such sorrow.
    Music is religion to me as it speaks of the most noble and sublime in non-verbal terms.
    Schubert has been my favourite for a long time.
    Thanks for posting all this—-really marvellous!

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