Reprintable only with permission from the author.
Schubert Quartet D. 810, “Death and the Maiden”
Schubert was a poet of unfulfillable longing, of human vulnerability, of the excruciating sweetness of the yearning to be at peace. He famously said of himself
I feel myself to be the most unfortunate, the most miserable being in the world. Think of a man whose health will never be right again, and who from despair over the fact makes it worse instead of better, think of a man, I say, whose splendid hopes have come to naught, to whom the happiness of love and friendship offers nothing but acutest pain, whose enthusiasm (at least, the inspiring kind) for the Beautiful threatens to disappear, and ask yourself whether he isn’t a miserable, unfortunate fellow.
My peace is gone, my heart is heavy,
I find it never, nevermore…
so might I sing every day, since each night when I go to sleep I hope never again to wake, and each morning merely reminds me of the misery of yesterday.
In no other composer’s work, with the possible exception of Shostakovich, do we find such stark and shattering juxtaposition of the human and the inhuman. Stony, unforgiving musical elements with no sense of malleability demand to be acknowledged, setting up a drama of the vulnerable individual in the clutches of destiny. Schubert’s celebrated lyricism has at its core the suffering of recognizing that which can not be had. The most tender passages very often have a quality of distance, of a vision of that most dearly hoped for and yet felt to be ungraspable. For the qualities of splendid hopes, of the happiness of love and friendship, of enthusiasm for the Beautiful which Schubert mentions are far from absent from his work. But they appear only in the guise of dreams, representing a wounding optimism. In many ways the traveler of the Winterreise, a lonely soul wandering though a barren, icy landscape, is emblematic of much of this composer’s output.
One of Schubert’s most beloved chamber music works, written when he was 27, the d minor String Quartet is characterized quite strongly by these qualities. Its opening measures could hardly be more stern and forbidding, and are immediately answered by tremulous whispered versions of the same motif, reacting with fear and filled with questioning. It is reminiscent of the casting out of Eden and the tenebrous trembling following. The tension between these two faces of the same material motivates the unfurling drama of the movement. The second theme is filled with hope, a gently rolling, tender melody which quickly becomes unsettled and takes on an unexpected harshness, filled with desperation. At the arrival of the coda we are plunged into an abyss, cold and distant, surrounded by spectral cries. A quickening of the tempo allows for one more attempt at facing the crisis head-on, but dissolves in defeat at the movement’s close.
The second movement is responsible for the nickname of this quartet, “Death and the Maiden,” since it is a set of variations on Schubert’s song of the same name. Rhythmically it proceeds in dactyls, the metrical foot of ancient Greek elegiac poetry. In the song, Death approaches a young maiden and says to her “Give me your hand, you lovely, tender creature. I am a friend and come not to punish. Be of good courage, I am not cruel; you shall sleep softly in my arms.” The treatment of this theme here reveals the full ambiguity of the idea of Death in Schubert’s music, at once terrifying and consoling. The theme is presented as a hushed chorale, austere and inexorable. A breathless, gasping variation follows, and then one with the original theme sung in the cello while the other instruments provide a richly textured, yet delicate accompaniment. The full fury of Death is unleashed in the third variation, the rhythm of the theme repeated obsessively four times as fast, with the delicate answers in the first half of the variation disappearing in the second. An exploration of a possible sense of final peace is allowed before a terrifying, inevitable but very slow building to the climax of the movement. Its denouement glistens with the ambiguity of resignation which is both tired and finally at rest.
The Scherzo is far from the original idea of such a movement as a light joke. Filled with jabbing offbeat accents, its anxiety is dissipated in the trio which follows, now in major. Soft throughout, this trio is a perfect example of the unreachable Eden Schubert dreams of, forever out of reach. The return of the Scherzo dashes any such hopes, of course, and the movement comes to fiery end, setting up the energetic final movement.
The final Presto is a dark galloping night ride in d minor, which keeps finding itself precariously perched in major keys. Forcefully driving almost without relief, with even more slowly moving themes accompanied by figures which dart about restlessly, the movement as it nears its close erupts into a Prestissimo coda which rushes headlong, mercilessly, to the final, brutal chords of the piece.
Note by Mark Steinberg
Reprintable only with permission from the author.
Ushering in the set of three great string quartets Schubert wrote at the end of his life is a torso of a work, the Quartettsatz (quartet movement) in c minor, written in 1820. This powerful movement was originally intended to be the first movement of a full quartet, and there exists a sketch for the opening of a second movement as well. It is not known why Schubert never completed the work, but the movement he did write is a masterpiece fully worthy of being in the company of the later, last three quartets.
The conflict between desire and reality is very often at the heart of Schubert’s music, a conflict at the root of what it is to be human. For we are rarely masters of Fate, and mortal longing defines the painful space between possibility and imagined fulfillment. By way of exploration one can look at the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe, as related by Ovid in the Metamorphosis. Pyramus and Thisbe, two of the most beautiful people in the land, are desperately in love, yet forbidden by their fathers to wed. Their sole communication is through a small hole in a wall, large enough to transmit a whisper, small enough that lips that offer a kiss will never know a response. They decide to steal away in the darkness of night and meet. On her way to meet her lover Thisbe espies a lion who has recently feasted on prey, his mouth still awash in blood, and she runs off, inadvertently dropping her cloak. The hungry lion chews on the cloak, drops it, and leaves. Pyramus, looking for his love, stumbles first upon the bloody cloak and, thinking Thisbe eaten by a monstrous creature, uses his sword to join her in death. Then, upon her return, Thisbe finds Pyramus dead and leans on the sword herself.
Terrible, incomprehensible forces coexist here with the beauty of tender vulnerability. The stranglehold of authority, the physical presence of the wall, the violence of nature, the impossibility of omniscience: all these are external obstacles interfering with the purity of love. But still the shadows they cast upon that love, spawning yearning and hope, introduce a fragility and an aching quality to that love that we recognize as deeply human. The renunciation of life as a reaction to thwarted love also exalts this love.
In the Quartettsatz such elements exist in close juxtaposition. The piece begins with a tremulous figure reminiscent of the opening of that other great uncompleted Schubert work, the Unfinished Symphony; there is a sense of instability created which permeates much of the work, even in anxious figures accompanying otherwise lyrical themes. It is a precarious and poignant ambiguity which is quintessentially Schubertian, the song that is even more beautiful because it exists only in memory or in imagination. Yearning and desire are even more moving when one dares to hope despite being confronted over and over by unforgiving realities. In Notebook/To Lucien Freud/On the Veil from School of the Arts poet Mark Doty speaks of “no hope/ without the possibility of a wound.” Schubert shows us the forces that wound, and the immense sensitivity of the soul that hopes. In this piece, Fate deals the final blow.
Note by Mark Steinberg