Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828)
With the powerful Quartettsatz in C minor of 1820, Schubert began his final run of mature string quartets, all masterworks of the genre. From the pithy, violent twelfth to the sprawling, transcendent fifteenth, Schubert seemed to traverse an arc of intense emotional expression describing a single mountain range of music. At the central peak likes the magnificent String Quartet No. 14 in D minor of 1824, posthumously titled Death and the Maiden after Schubert’s lied of the same name informing the second movement. But for its frightening single-mindedness, the D minor quartet is Schubert’s greatest quartet, among the finest in the entire quartet literature. Other works provide a greater range of emotional tenor; the Death and the Maiden is nearly monothematic in mood. But it is the very uniformity of focus that makes this quartet stand alone. And its obsessive qualities encompass more than mood. Triplets and dotted rhythms agitate every movement and programmatic subtexts evoke a common conceptual theme. In general, it is a compositional tour de force. Throughout, the part writing is breathtaking, the textures clear, colorful and ever changing. Schubert’s lyrical themes abound, his rhythms rock and his formal schemes are more taut that in any of the late chamber works. All ample arguments for its rank as Schubert’s most popular quartet.
The first movement quickly establishes a pattern that runs throughout the quartet. A dark and powerful opening gesture is quickly answered by a soft lyrical contrast, a dichotomy that oscillates back and forth as each episode intensifies the contrast. The tension escalates through elaboration and development in a rondo-sonata hybrid found throughout Schubert’s oeuvre. Whether or not Schubert’s intensions were programmatic here, the musical episodes easily suggest a dialog among characters: a grim apparition of death confronting a tender maiden, or, perhaps more precisely, a terrified maiden and the gentle wooing of death:
Oh! leave me! Prithee, leave me! thou grisly man of bone!
For life is sweet, is pleasant.
Go! leave me now alone!
Go! leave me now alone!
Give me thy hand, oh! maiden fair to see,
For I’m a friend, hath ne’er distress’d thee.
Take courage now, and very soon
Within mine arms shalt softly rest thee!”
The dialog escalates and a battle begins to rage. Defiance and frantic flight relentlessly charge from beginning to end. Death and the Maiden, the Earl king and boy, and Schubert, the mortified witness, beholding it all.
The quartet’s nickname comes not from this strikingly apt metaphor for the first movement, but the musical content of the second. The slow movement is a set of variations on a theme taken from the piano part of Schubert’s own lied from 1817. The theme is somber and chaste as a funeral dirge slowly marches in four-part unison. The long theme is a full-fledged two-part song form, simple but richly articulate in its full narrative. A series of five variations develops the elegy into a brilliant set of verses through a kaleidoscope of textures, moods, rhythmic figurations and featured soloists. The fourth variation brings a major key with its magical relief while the fifth variation reasserts the shadow with an even darker vengeance. The chaste hymn returns transformed, high, soft and gently hopeful, but a moment of repose before the next wave.
The scherzo restores the rhythmic drive as a heavy, bi-polar texture splits the quartet in two. Syncopated call and response between twin-powered treble and bass is just one of many designs Schubert uses to achieve some of the most powerful quartet writing imaginable. The trio is another rare graceful refuge within this great storm. Lilting and lyrical, delicate and warm, it waltzes away like a feather on a breeze until the bluster of the scherzo blows again.
Schubert caps the quartet with a breakneck rondo, a frantic leaping dance called the tarantella traditionally said to ward off the effects of a fatal spider bite. Once again the music evokes a frantic flight from death. A dotted gallop features some of the most fiery passages in the quartet: brusque imitations, wild gypsy descants, rustic drones and Elvin textures that suggest Beethoven and Mendelssohn folded into Schubert’s own voice. Again, the episodes rapidly juxtapose the severe and the suave in a swirling deadly embrace. The tempo quickens into a manic pace until the last leap meets a fatal blow. As abruptly as it began, the quartet meets its end. As Schumann said of a another Schubert piece, an angry comet races across the sky.