Tuesday, July 3, 2012

String Quartet No. 14 "Death and the Maiden" by Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

If you ever thought string quartets were boring, hold on to your hats! Franz Schubert, who is most known for the 600+ songs (including Der Leiermann) he wrote in his life, also wrote many fantastic string quartets. My favourite of them all is the "Death and the Maiden" string quartet written in 1824. This work showcases all of the power and beauty and intimacy of this genre.

This Quartet takes its name from a song that Schubert wrote in 1817. It was a setting of a poem by Matthias Claudius. The translation of the text of the poem is as follows:

The Maiden:
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!"

While the 2nd movement of this work uses the melody from Schubert's song, the entire "death and the maiden" struggle permeates the entire work. Walter Willson Cobbett (author of the 1929 Cobbett's Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music) said of it "The struggle with Death is the subject of the first movement, and the andante accordingly dwells on Death's words. The finale is most definitely in the character of a dance of death; ghastly visions whirl past in the inexorable uniform rhythm of the tarantella." (The Tarantella is the traditional dance to ward off madness and death.)

Others have seen the quartet as a musical expression of Judaeo-Christian religious myths with each movement being about a different episode in the mythic process of death and resurrection.

Fascinating stuff, right?

Well, without further ado, I bring you the quartet! Performed here by the Alban Berg Quartet.

I. Allegro
II. Andante con moto
III. Scherzo Allegro molto
IV. Presto

If you'd like to hear the original Death and the Maiden song written by Schubert, you can find it here. The accompanist here, by the way, is the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, an amazing singer who has recorded many of Schubert's songs. He just recently passed away, making the world a much sadder place.

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