There's a slight chill in the air, can you feel it? It's the icy grip of Death closing in around you. ...Ok, so I'm being a little dramatic, but you have to be when dealing with these darkly inspired pieces. Let's begin with a popular motif in the arts: Death and the Maiden.
Death is a fascinating subject for us, mainly because we all experience it in some capacity through the loss of loved ones or coping with our own demise. We are all aware of our own death, and a few of us decide to either fight it, accept it, or pay it homage. Some of us strive for immortality through the arts, aiming to live forever through their works; others simply take it in stride and use it to fuel their works. Side-stepping the religious connotations of death and afterlife (we'll get to it later), death is a popular motif composers like to turn to.
One motif that grew popular in the Renaissance was "Death and the Maiden", and off-shoot of an early motif "Dance of Death" which gave the idea that "No matter one's station in life, the Dance of Death unites all", an idea that Death is the one thing everybody knows and experiences. "Death and the Maiden" evolved mainly as an erotic subtext of the same idea, the even beauty can die; this idea had a certain popularity during the Romantic Era through art, literature, and music. The most popular example is Franz Schubert's Death and the Maiden
Quartet. Let's take a look, shall we?
In 1817, Schubert wrote a lied (song, or art song, alternately) "Der Tod und das Mädchen", a setting of a poem of the same name by Matthias Claudius. The theme of the lied is used in the second movement of the quartet, but the quote itself establishes the overall tone of bleakness and unremitting foreboding. The quartet itself was written between 1823-1824, a period in which Schubert was sick with an outburst of tertiary stage syphilis, and in May had to be hospitalized. He was broke: he had entered into a disastrous deal with Anton Diabelli to publish a batch of works, and received almost no payment; and his latest attempt at opera, Fierabras
, was a flop. Earlier in 1820, Schubert returned to the quartet form for the first time since he was a teenager, all the while composing light and tuneful music that made him the toast of Vienna. However, he realized that instead of writing quartets to order or for the home, he could use the form to express his inner struggles. Since the medium offered him a bridge between the lyrical and dramatic, he could reconcile these vast differences in his own music.
Completed in 1824, Schubert paints a highly dramatic picture of death and beauty. The recording I've picked is played by a String Orchestra, arranged by Gustav Mahler, because I feel it offers a greater depth and a fuller, richer timbre, lending itself to a much greater dramatic picture.String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810, Death and the Maiden
Franz SchubertPerformer information unavailable
A String Quartet follows the same form conventions as the Symphony, so I'm going to assume you all have done your reading.
I - Allegro, in D minor and common time
II - Andante con moto, in G minor and divided common (2/2) time
III - Scherzo: Allegro molto, in D minor and 3/4 time
IV - Presto, in D minor and 6/8 timeI - Allegro
The 14-bar introduction establishes the dramatic nature of the work with the juxtaposed fortissimo and pianissimo dynamics as well as the elements that will make up the movement, and the work as a whole. It begins on a unison D, followed by a triplet figure that will become a running motif; followed by the pp
The first theme continues the chorale motif with the lower voices playing the triplet motif in an endless, unremitting stream. This triplet motif transmutes itself into a connecting theme of its own bringing us to the second theme in F Major. The second theme still preserves the triplet under current, while the violins play a more rhythmically lively theme than the first, albeit much softer in tone. This theme is steadily explored until the first violin opens up with a 16th-note passage, one that would accompany the melody as it modulates to A. Once in A, the second theme, triplet figure, and 16th accompaniment are heard simultaneously in a busy context. The exposition ends with a violent transformation of the second theme in a wretched outburst in A minor.
The development explores the second theme in its two forms: the quiet, lilting version; and the violent inverted form. This section fluctuates between a fading relaxation and the fortissimo outbursts. Towards the end of the development Schubert reintroduces the triplet motif, leading the the recapitulation. Here the opening theme returns with variants as the music moves to a relaxed D Major for the recap of the second theme, before returning to the stormy D minor. The second theme is heard once more in F major before calming into the chorale, but the tension doesn't relax as it is interrupted by a sudden fortepiano. The opening theme returns, indicating a resurgence of life, growing to a climax that suddenly breaks off. The triplet motif is played at the original tempo as the movement slowly dies away.II - Andante con moto
The second movement is a theme and five variations, based on Schubert's earlier lied. The theme is much like a death march, in G minor, ultimately resolving in G Major. Schubert does not deviate from the basic harmonic and senctence structure of the 24-bar theme, allowing the variations to express profoundly different emotions.
The first variation gives us a lilting violin above the pulsing theme, now in triplets, bringing forth the triplet motif.
The second variations give the cello a solo while the first violin plays a pulsating role in 16ths.
The third variation brings us back to the sturm und drang character of the work, juxtaposing a galloping fortissimo and a soft piano. The first violin plays a variant of the theme in a high register while the inner voices continue the gallop.
The fourth variation is lyrical with the viola carrying the melody underneath long violin line in triplets; this is the only variation in a major key, G Major.
The final variation has the second violin playing the melody, the first violin playing a 16th-note arpeggiated theme, and the cello playing a triplet figure in the bass line. The music grows from pp
and the fades and slows down into a repeat of the theme in the major key of G major.III - Scherzo: Allegro molto
Designed as a classical minuet, the Scherzo has two repeated sections in 3/4, followed by a slower Trio in D Major, ending with a recapitulation of the two opening strains. The movement again deals with the dramatic leaps from fortissimo and pianissimo, with the Trio being the only real respite from the compelling pace of the movement. The shortest movement of the quartet, it acts more of an interlude before the frenetic finale.IV - Presto
The Finale is a tarantella in sonata-rondo form. The tarantella was a quick Italian dance in 6/8 that, according to tradition, that was a treatment for a bite by a tarantula spider. In other words, a "dance of death". The movement is built in sections, with the main section occuring between each of the subsequent sections. The main section opens with a rondo in unison, with a theme based on a dotted figure that is traditionally bowed in reverse direction of normal dotted figures. This moves the accent to the off-beat, giving the theme a limping feel.
The theme develops characteristically, with sudden lurches from loud to soft and running triplets, leading to the second second section of the rondo; a broad, chorale-like theme. The second theme is reminiscient of Schubert's Der Erlkönig
, a lied about a child who dies at the hands of the king of the forest. This motif continues, with a flowing triplet accompaniment the recalls the fourth variation in the second movement.; leading to a restatement of the main theme. Here the triplet motif appears in a disguised form, leading back to the choral theme. After another statement of the main theme, the third section begins.
This section is a complex, involuted section with chromatic swirls of triplets and hemiolas that cause the listener to lose all sense of downbeat. This leads into a recapitulation of the second section, and then a return of the main section of the rondo. A crescendo leads to the Prestissimo coda of the movement and of the piece. The coda begins in D major, suggesting a triumphant end, a device common in classical and romantic quartets; but in this case, the coda suddenly returns to D minor, for a tumultuous and tragic conclusion.
And with that, our dear Maiden is dead. One down, six to go. Next time we will look at some Funeral Marches that have become pretty popular. Most of these are actually from larger works, but I plan on just discussing the movements themselves. If you know of any Funeral Marches you'd like to talk about, Classical or otherwise, please bring them up and their context if it is not widely known.