Six of the best string quartets about life and death
The Jubilee Quartet chooses the greatest works for string quartet exploring the cycle of life
Beethoven String Quartet No. 15: III. Molto adagio. Andante
This incredible movement bears the title ‘Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der Lydischen Tonart’, which translates to ‘Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian mode’.
Beethoven composed this music after he battled with a terrible illness, fearing he would never recover. The music is both haunting and hopeful, and features faster sections marked ‘With new strength’ which repeatedly return to the profoundly moving chorale sections, sending the listener into an ever deeper emotional state.
Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1 ‘From My Life’
Smetana completed the composition of this quartet after he became deaf. Each movement is a sketch of different moments in his life, giving glimpses into his past youth, conveying the emotion and transcendent power of love, and, tragically, his fast-developing hearing loss.
Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 ‘Death and the Maiden’: II. Andante con moto
This piece is named after a song composed by Schubert in 1817, with the song’s main theme forming the basis for the recurring motif in this movement of the quartet.
The song is set to a poem by Matthias Claudius, in which the maiden begs the terrifying figure of death to stay away, allowing her to enjoy her life peacefully. ‘Death’ replies, asking her to allow him to take her into his arms, for he is a friend and wishes for her to take courage and finally come to rest.
Haydn’s ‘Seven Last Words of Christ’ arr. for string quartet
Originally written for orchestra, Haydn arranged the ‘Seven Last Words of Christ’ for string quartet in 1787. Each movement is preceded by a sentence from the gospels of the story of the crucifixion.
Haydn’s music is full of incredible expression and colour, and in this particular work he creates wonderful contrast between hope and light, and stark, barren grief.
Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 1: I. Allegro con brio
The second movement of Beethoven’s First String Quartet is said to be inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, namely the scene in which Juliet awakens from her drugged slumber to find that Romeo has killed himself in order to be with her in the afterlife.
Beethoven uses D minor to present the tragic story, opening with the three lower instruments pulsing as a heartbeat while the first violin sings a plaintive, desperate line. We get glimpses into happier times with a nostalgic waltz-like figure, but the desperation returns, and the movement ends with a final, tragic sigh.
Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2 ‘Intimate Letters’
This quartet is based on a series of hundreds of letters that Janáček wrote to a much younger woman with whom he was madly in love – but the love was unrequited.
The unbridled passion is audible in his writing, and the quartet is full of moments of touching tenderness as well as incredible frustration and anger.
The Jubilee Quartet's debut album of Haydn Quartets is released on 10 March 2019 on Rubicon.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.