Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Franz Schubert's "Death & the Maiden" Quartet: Up Close & Personal

This weekend, Brooklyn Rider will be performing a concert of new, very new and old music at their Market Square Concerts performance, Saturday evening at 8pm in the Market Square Presbyterian Church in downtown Harrisburg. You can read earlier posts about the ensemble and about Lisa Bielawa's Graffiti dell'amante which will be given its world premiere at this concert. This post is about the “old” music on the program: Schubert's String Quartet in D Minor, D.810.

It's called the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet not because of any specific story being told in its music but because Schubert used part of his song, “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (“Death and the Maiden,” D.531, written in February 1817 when he was 20 years old) as the basis for the variations movement in his D Minor String Quartet (D.810, written mostly in March 1824 when he was 27).

He had ocassionally taken material from some works and used them in a few other works, most famously the song “Die Forelle” (“The Trout”) in the Quintet in A Major for Piano and Strings generally called “The Trout Quintet” and, less well-known, the song “Sei mir gegrüßt” (“I greet you”) which he used for the variations embedded in the Fantasy in C for Violin and Piano. A phrase from his song, “Der Wanderer” (D.493), has a prominent if largely overlooked role in the second movement of the Fantasy in C Minor for Piano, known as the “Wanderer Fantasy.” A theme from his incidental music for the disastrous play, “Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus,” also became the basis for variations in the D Minor Quartet's companion, the A Minor String Quartet he'd finished the previous month, and so it also is usually known as the “Rosamunde Quartet.” Recycling, you see, is not necessarily a new concept.

While I'm convinced the quotation in the “Wanderer Fantasy” has some personal significance to the composer (see below), the appearance of “Die Forelle” in the quintet was a request from the amateur musician who asked him to write the work, since it was his favorite of Schubert's songs and he thought it would lend itself to a marvelous set of variations. That logic may perhaps be what's behind the selection of the themes used in these two quartets rather than any deeper, psychological reason.


The D Minor String Quartet, however, is more than just its variation movement, just as the Trout Quintet is more than that one famous movement. But let me begin by describing the song which he'd written just days after he'd left his teen-aged years behind him.

First of all, Schubert is regarded as one of the greatest composers of songs or specifically of the German Lied (pronounced “leed”) - keeping in mind that “song” means a setting of a text to be performed with voice and (generally) piano and not in the sense many people use it today to describe any musical composition. When Schubert composed piano pieces, his models were Beethoven or Mozart; when he wrote symphonies and overtures, his models may have been Haydn and Mozart or, more likely, the many contemporary composers who followed the same style but are largely forgotten today. But there really were no role models for a composer of songs: though Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all wrote some, they did not have the depth of emotion and character that was more in style during the early decades of the 19th Century.

While many of Schubert's early piano and orchestral works strike us as derivative, he could be more daring in his songs. It was here that he found his own voice (no pun intended) and it may be why we are surprised to discover, by comparison to the instrumental works he wrote at the same time, these were written by someone so young. Perhaps his most famous songs, “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (“Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel,” D.118) and “Der Erlkönig” (“The Erl-King”, D. 328), written when he was 17 and 18, sound like a much more mature composer than the Symphony No. 6 in C Major (known as the “Little C Major”) which he finished shortly after his 21st birthday.

Another curious thing about the songs is how many of them are so assuredly dramatic and yet Schubert, who wanted more than anything to succeed at writing an opera (it's where a composer's fortune could be made, in those days), could not sustain a sense of drama over a longer span of time. Of all the operas he composed (and many were left incomplete), none has as much drama or character insight in them as a song of a only a few minutes' length like “Gretchen am Spinnrade” or “Der Tod und das Mädchen.”

“Death and the Maiden” is a short poem in two parts. The first is the anguished cry of a young girl, anxious at the thought of dying. The second part is sung by Death itself, by contrast serene and welcoming, not to be feared.

Here is a “video” of a recording made with the legendary American alto, Marian Anderson, accompanied at the piano by Franz Rupp, in Schubert's song, “Der Tod und das Mädchen.” I'm not sure when it was recorded: some time in the 1940s, I think.

(That final note she sings, by the way, is a Low D – almost a full octave below Middle C, far lower than female voices can usually manage, in fact a note often considered “low” for tenors!)

It is the second half of this song – Death's consoling serenade – that Schubert uses in the second movement of his String Quartet in D Minor which then gives it the nickname “The Death and the Maiden” Quartet. Here is the variation movement, performed by the Borromeo Quartet.

Here's a fairly literal (and unpoetic) translation of the text of this passage Schubert used in the Quartet:

Give me your hand, you beautiful and sweet image:
I am a friend and do not come to give you pain.
Be of good cheer. I am not harsh.
In my arms you shall gently sleep.

Now, we might think Schubert chose this “melody” (it's hardly much of a tune) because of its potential for variation or because he liked it and it was a popular song of his, no doubt helping with recognition and marketing (things he did, incidentally, keep in mind at times).

But I'm not so sure there isn't more to it.

Schubert had first exhibited the symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as syphilis when he was 25 in the autumn of 1822. He had begun the dark and brooding B Minor Symphony (which for some reason he left unfinished after two incredible movements) and then, in the weeks after starting the symphony's full score, he composed the anguished “Wanderer” Fantasy. The music he used from his song “Der Wanderer” is a fragment setting lines in which the wanderer describes the sun as cold, blossoms withered, life old and he himself a stranger everywhere.

Considering this is not a memorable melody or even something that might catch your attention as fodder for variations, what is the implication of the text, given what was going on in Schubert's life at the moment he was writing this?

Whatever the dangers may be of mixing psychology and creativity, knowing what the text was to the music he used here changed the “meaning” of the piece for me: I no longer hear it as simply virtuosic piano-writing but a deeply personal, dramatic catharsis.

Perhaps there is something of that in the Unfinished Symphony as well, written in these gloomy months when it looked like his life would be changed forever, if he would survive at all. Perhaps that might explain why he abandoned the symphony after trying to write a light-hearted scherzo after those two intense movements? Conjecture, of course, since we have no proof anywhere that that was what he said or thought. But how could a young man of 25, given the sentimental age he lived in, not be affected by these thoughts, the Romantic idea of the suffering artist that also plagued his contemporary Beethoven who spent much of his life dealing with his deafness?

While it might be simplistic to say that Schubert “recovered,” his health had seemed more on the mend a year later, in the fall of 1823. Friends wrote that he was more himself, was seen more often (once again) in the company of his friends but usually accompanied by a Dr. Bernhardt, hired by Schubert's friend Spaun to make sure Schubert didn't “over-do it.” The “dratted doctor” (as Schubert described him in a letter) was also an amateur poet who had submitted an opera libretto to him for his consideration. Schubert, having dealt with the debacle of “Rosamunde” that same season (the amateur poet Helmine von Chezy's play was universally reviled though some critics thought to mention the music was nice) and his on-going failure to get not one but two of his recent operas staged, rejected it, no doubt having had enough of the theater and of amateur poets for a while.

But not long after New Year's Day, 1824, and his 27th birthday party (which saw Schubert unconscious before it broke up around 2:30am), he became ill again. Dr. Bernhardt prescribed a strict diet of cutlets one day and a pastry made of flavored bread and water the next, all washed down with vast quantities of tea. It was during the following month he composed the Octet in F and the first two of what he had planned as a trio of string quartets: the two he finished were the ones in A Minor and D Minor. 

The A Minor Quartet was played soon after it was finished by Ignaz Schuppanzigh (see right) and his quartet at a concert for the Society of the Friends of Music, while Schubert continued working on the D Minor Quartet. It's also interesting to note that Schupannzigh, a friend and champion of Beethoven, had premiered the Razumovsky Quartets in 1808 and had arranged for another Russian nobleman, Prince Nikolai Galitsin, to commission some new string quartets from Beethoven in 1823. It was in 1824 that Beethoven would begin composing the Quartet Op.127, the first of his "Late Quartets."

But during this time, Schubert's state of mind appears to have verged on what was until recently called “manic-depression.” In a letter written on March 31st, 1824, to a friend then staying in Rome, he writes,

“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 who in their despair over this ever makes things worse and worse, instead of better; imagine a man, I say, whose most brilliant hopes have come to nothing, to whom the joy of love and friendship have nothing to offer but pain, at best, whose enthusiasm (at least of the stimulating kind) for all things beautiful threatens to vanish, and ask yourself, is he not a miserable, unhappy being?”

He then quotes a line of poetry:

“My peace is gone, my heart is sore; I shall never find peace again, never again.”

That is a famous line from Goethe's poem, “Gretchen am Spinnrade” which he used as a refrain, setting it to music ten years earlier.

He concludes this paragraph with

“I may well sing [this] every day now, for each night, I go to bed hoping never to wake again, and each morning only tells me of yesterday's grief.”

While the letter goes on with news that “I have tried my hand at several instrumental works... two quartets... an Octet and I want to write another Quartet; in fact that is how I want to work my way towards composing a grand symphony.” (By that, he meant a large-scale symphony: no mention of the B Minor he had left unfinished...)

His plans are hardly those of one who expects to die any day now, but still, it is difficult to read some of this without wondering how it affected the music he was composing at the same time, especially the reason he may have chosen the consoling words of a comforting Death as the basis for his current quartet's slow movement. The whole quartet is certainly a dark and dramatic work from beginning to end, but it is the balance Schubert finds between his pain and his hope that keeps the tragedy from becoming unbearable.

It should also be noted that the recipient of that March 31st letter wrote to his fiancé and summed it up by saying “Poor old Schubert complains to me that he is ill again,” and leaves it at that.

Here is a “video” posted at YouTube of the Alban Berg Quartet's recording of Schubert's String Quartet in D Minor, the quartet known as “Death and the Maiden.”

How much of the quartet was finished in that first month of March 1824, we don't know. The Otto Deutsch catalogue (which lists Schubert's music with the letter D and a number: for example, D.810) lists the work as composed between March 1824 and January 1826, then adds it "was finished or revised in January 1826."

Schubert usually composed very quickly, so any work left unfinished would probably never be returned to, given his past history. We should also notice the letter I'd quoted above, written on March 31st, 1824, that said "I have tried my hand at several instrumental works... two quartets... an Octet..." which would imply that by then these two quartets were already complete.

We know he attended rehearsals for the quartet on January 19th and 30th, 1826, so the possibility of some revisions would make more sense than his coming back to finish the work at that time.

The quartet was given its first performance on February 1st in a private concert at the home of tenor Josef Barth, a member of the Court chapel choir (he lived in an apartment in Prince Schwarzenberg's winter palace) but an old friend of Schubert's. A little later, the work was given another private performance, this time at the home of composer Franz Lachner, another old friend from Schubert's school days, and now conductor of one of the major theaters in Vienna. (Presumably, the quartet was not performed by Schuppanzigh, this time: his name would certainly have been mentioned if it had been.) The first public performance of the quartet, however, didn't take place until five years after Schubert's death.

About some of the  pictures: The header photo is a famous watercolor portrait of Schubert by his friend, August Wilhelm Rieder, painted in May, 1825, about a year after he began the D Minor Quartet. The story goes that Rieder lived in a house once lived in by the great composer, Christoph Willibald von Gluck and Schubert told his friend how inspiring it would be to be able to compose there. Unfortunately, Rieder did not own a piano. So he went and "hired" a new square piano and put it in one of the rooms, telling Schubert if he came by and saw a particular window's curtains open, he could come in without knocking and go straight to the piano; if the curtains were closed, Rieder was busy painting and did not wish to be disturbed.

The two images of "Death and the Maiden" are from different eras: Hans Schwarz's woodcut dates from 1520, and Marianne Stokes' lunette from 1900.

- Dr. Dick

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