The Kennedy Center

String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810, "Death and the Maiden"

About the Work

Franz Schubert Composer: Franz Schubert
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

When Wilhelmine von Chezy's play Rosamunde, with extensive incidental music by Franz Schubert, was hooted off the stage at its premiere in Vienna on December 20, 1823, the 27-year-old composer decided to turn his efforts away from the theater, where he had found only frustration, and devote more attention to his purely instrumental music. The major works of 1823-the operas Fierrabras and Der häusliche Krieg, the song cycle Die schöne Müllerin and Rosamunde-gave way to the String Quartets in D minor ("Death and the Maiden") and A minor, the A minor Cello Sonata (Arpeggione), several sets of variations and German dances, and the Octet. At that time in Schubert's life, composition may have been something of an escape from the difficulties of his personal situation. He was suffering from anemia and a nervous disorder as the result of syphilis and its treatment (mercury in the early 19th century), and was constantly broke, living largely on the generosity of his devoted friends with only an occasional pittance from some performance or publication. In March 1824 he poured out his troubles in a letter to Leopold Kupelweiser, a close friend recently moved to Rome: "In a word, I feel myself to be the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world. Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and whose sheer despair over this makes things constantly worse instead of better; imagine a man whose most brilliant hopes have perished, to whom the felicity of love and friendship have nothing to offer but pain; whom enthusiasm (at least of the stimulating kind) for all things beautiful threatens to forsake, and I ask you, is he not a miserable, unhappy being?" Schubert then quoted some forlorn lines from Goethe's poem Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel), which he had set in 1814: "My peace is gone, my heart is sore, I shall find it never, nevermore [are words which] I may well sing every day now, for each night on retiring to bed, I hope I may not wake again, and each morning but recalls yesterday's grief." Such anguish, however, did not seem to thwart Schubert's creative muse, and the year 1824, when his physician was able to restore somewhat his health through regular mineral baths, a strict diet and confinement to his room, was one of the most productive periods of his life. The D minor Quartet (popularly subtitled "Death and the Maiden") was a product of that trying year.

The quartet's first movement opens with a bold, dramatic gesture, founded upon a pregnant triplet-rhythm motive. This opening motive is whipped to a considerable frenzy before the music quiets, pauses on two chords surrounded by silence, and then launches into the subsidiary subject, a lilting violin duet of contrasting lyrical quality. The development section is a compact and closely worked contrapuntal elaboration of the second theme. A rising wave of expressive tension leads without pause to the recapitulation, which is announced by a stark, barren octave splayed across all four instruments of the ensemble.

The sobriquet of the D minor Quartet-"Death and the Maiden"-is derived from the source of the theme of its second movement, a song that Schubert composed on a poem of that title by Matthias Claudius in February 1817. Claudius' brief text contrasts the terror of a young girl ("Pass by, horrible skeleton! Do not touch me!") with the mock-soothing words of death ("I am your friend. Be of good cheer! I am not fierce! You shall sleep softly in my arms!"). The song begins with a piano introduction depicting the solemn tread of death, continues with the maiden's music of panic and fear, and ends with the words of death set to the strains of the introduction. It is from the opening and closing sections of the song that  Schubert borrowed the theme for the quartet, which he worked as a set of five variations. The Scherzo, with its unsettling rhythmic syncopations and restless expression, reinstates the defiant mood of the first movement. The finale, a feverish tarantella, combines formal elements of rondo and sonata.