SCHUBERT Franz, String Quartet in D minor D.810 “Death and the Maiden”


‘There’s nothing here at all: leave well alone and stick to writing songs.’ This was the damning verdict given to Schubert by Ignaz Schuppanzigh after he had led a private performance of Death and the Maiden at the house of composer Franz Lachner in 1826. As the violinist who had led the first performances of many of Beethoven’s quartets, Schuppanzigh knew the possibilities of the form as well as anyone at the time, but Schubert’s daring and originality in this work clearly eluded him.


Composed in March 1824 (and using the earlier song of the same name as the theme of the second movement), this profound and sometimes disturbing string quartet was not performed in public during Schubert’s lifetime, nor was it published (unlike the A minor Quartet, completed just before it, which was not only first performed by Schuappanzigh but also dedicated to him) – Schubert’s plan for the A minor (Rosamunde), D minor (Death and the Maiden) and G major quartets to be issued together as a set of three never came to fruition. Death and Maiden was only published for the first time in 1831, and it soon attracted a much more positive response from musicians that Schuppanzigh’s dismissive reaction. The critic for the Vossische Zeitung (Berlin’s leading newspaper) wrote in 1833 of a work ‘abundant in originality’ while Robert Schumann in his retrospective review of the Leipzig concert season in 1837–8 wrote that ‘only the excellence of such a work as Schubert’s D minor Quartet – like that of many of his others – can in any way console us for the early and grievous death of this first-born of Beethoven; in a few years he achieved and perfected things as no one before him.’ The four-movement structure may look conventional, but as well as the startling dramatic contrasts of the first movement and the extraordinary song variations that constitute the slow movement, the Scherzo, with its tense syncopations is a brilliant reworking and expansion of one of Schubert’s German Dances (D790, No. 6) for solo piano. It’s a startling transformation. The finale is equally remarkable: an unremitting Tarantella – the wild dance that traditionally wards off madness and death – structured as a large rondo, beginning with an austere statement of the main theme that is almost entirely bereft of harmony. The Prestissimo coda of this movement, with some of the most dramatic and exciting harmonic shifts in all Schubert, pushes mercilessly towards a defiant, disturbing close.

Nigel Simeone 2014


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