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Franz Schubert’s much-too-short life was filled with music from beginning to end. Instructed in the basics of music by both his father and his older brother Ignaz, Schubert played piano, violin, and organ, and also sang from the time he was very young. In 1808 he earned a scholarship to sing in the Imperial Court’s chapel choir. He then became a schoolmaster in the same school where his father taught – a position Schubert found tedious – and he left to pursue music full-time in 1818.
By the 1820s Schubert was making some money from his compositions and was also part of a close-knit circle of artists and students who gathered regularly for “Schubertiaden.” However, starting in 1823, Schubert suffered from a number of hardships, most difficult of which was the illness (likely syphilis) that struck the young composer at the end of 1822. Despite this, Schubert’s music never stopped, and in fact progressed greatly as he grew sicker.
Schubert hadn’t written string quartets since his teens but began writing them again in the 1820s. Perhaps, as music historian Homer Ulrich suggests, the genre offered him a medium to marry his lyricism and dramatic intensions in a form that allowed “extreme color contrasts.” String Quartet No. 14, “Death and the Maiden,” is one of the pillars of the chamber music repertoire. Writing in 1824, Schubert did what many great composers do: he borrowed from himself. The quartet is titled for the second movement’s theme, taken from the song “Der Tod und das Mädchen,” written seven years earlier. The theme runs all the way through the quartet.
The first movement, an Allegro, sets the stage with typical major-minor instability and explosive outbursts. After a somber, chorale-like beginning to the Andante con moto, variations appear, using the “Death and the Maiden” accompaniment to dramatic effect. In the third movement, a Scherzo, the quartet is split into a high and low call-and-response, while a heavy dotted rhythmic figure dominates. The Trio that interrupts the movement is a breath of warm air that blows in and then dissipates as the Scherzo’s dark waltz returns.
The finale is a raging rondo that keeps the dotted rhythm from the Scherzo movement as it turns around and around in a traditional dance form called the tarantella. Schubert’s brilliant lyricism stands out even in the frantic movement – there are brief moments of respite within the fray where we hear longing sighs and reflective thoughts. The tarantella was traditionally thought to be a dance to ward off madness and death and at this late point in the composer’s life he was certainly grappling with these big themes – death, spirituality, inner struggle. The finale ends after breakneck runs and two short chords. The “Death and the Maiden” Quartet was first played in 1826 in a private home and wasn’t published until 1831, three years after Schubert’s death.
- Jessie Rothwell