Schubert's Death and the Maiden: A guide to Schubert's emotional string quartet and its best recordings
Erik Levi picks out the finest recordings of Schubert's Death and the Maiden, a piece in which the Austrian composer plumbs the very depths of despair
‘Just imagine a man whose health will never be re-established, and who from sheer despondency makes matters worse rather than better,’ wrote Schubert to his friend Leopold Kupelwieser in March 1824; ‘just imagine a man whose brightest hopes have come to nothing, to whom happiness of proffered love and friendship offers nothing but anguish, for whom enthusiasm for what is beautiful threatens to vanish altogether, and then ask yourself if such a condition does not represent a miserable and unhappy man?’
This confessional letter reveals the composer’s desperate state of mind as he grappled with the harsh realisation that there was no hope of him recovering from syphilis. He had spent part of the previous year in hospital fighting the disease, but with little success.
When and why did Schubert compose Death and the Maiden?
Confronting the prospect that his life would be cut short, coupled with continuing anxiety as to his prospects of securing any semblance of financial stability, cast a dark shadow over many of the works written during this period. None, however, projects such an uncompromising message of despair as the String Quartet in D minor. It was the second of two quartets written in 1824, and came to be known as Der Tod und das Mädchen (‘Death and the Maiden’) because in the second movement, Schubert composed a set of variations based on a fragment of the piano accompaniment from the song of the same name which he had composed back in 1817.
What are the characteristics of Schubert's song Death and the Maiden?
Alongside the ‘Rosamunde’ Quartet, Death and the Maiden marks a radical break with Schubert’s previous works in this genre. Whereas his earlier quartets more or less followed in the footsteps of Haydn and Mozart, Death and the Maiden reflects a determination to stamp his own individuality on the medium. What is new is the symphonic scale and heightened emotional temperature of Schubert’s musical argument which throughout is haunted by the spectre of death.
The long and intense first movement, lasting well over a quarter of hour when observing the exposition repeat, presents a veritable battle-ground between forceful and declamatory material that has a quasi-orchestral richness and quieter more lyrical episodes. For the most part, the music is dark and sombre, the few shifts into a supposedly brighter major key offering little relief. Perhaps the most disturbing passage comes at the end of the movement where instead of the expected emphatic final chords, the music collapses from sheer exhaustion into a ghostly echo of the opening dramatic flourish.
The suppressed dynamics here in effect offer an inspired segue into the calm opening of the second movement where the quartet hauntingly intones the piano part of the Death and the Maiden song in four-part harmony, sounding to all intents and purposes like a liturgical chant. Schubert subjects this material to ingenious transformations, from the lyrical introversion of the first two variations to the hard-edged intensity of the third. Most poignant of all is his trademark shift into the major key for the fourth variation. In the context of a work that doggedly returns to and reinforces the minor key throughout its four movements, this change of mood sounds all the more poignant.
A similarly brief oasis of tranquillity is recreated later in the work in the gentle major-key Trio that frames the driving Scherzo, some of whose thematic material is culled from a set of Ländler for piano that Schubert had composed the previous year. After this comes the extraordinary and terrifying Presto finale, a whirlwind roller-coaster dance of death cast in the form of a tarantella. The obsessive rhythmic energy of the opening idea, which returns several times throughout the movement, creates an almost claustrophobic atmosphere and the only way Schubert seems able to resolve matters is by introducing an accelerando at the end which drives the music even further into the abyss.
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Schubert dedicated both the ‘Rosamunde’ and Death and the Maiden quartets to Ignaz Schuppanzigh, the first violinist of a professional quartet that had been closely associated with performing the works of Beethoven. Although Schuppanzigh graciously accepted the ‘Rosamunde’, he was far more dismissive of Death and the Maiden, advising Schubert that his time would be better spent writing songs. The net result of this rejection, which proved a bitter blow to Schubert, was that the work was never published during his lifetime and received very few performances until the late 1840s.
Thereafter, however, Death and the Maiden entered the repertoire, securing the esteem of many Romantic composers including Schumann, Brahms and Dvořák. Gustav Mahler was also a strong admirer of the work, but felt that its impact in the concert hall would be greatly enhanced by his decision, in 1896, to rearrange his fellow Austrian’s piece for string orchestra.
We named Schubert one of the best Austrian composers ever and one of the most famous composers of all time
The best recordings of Schubert's Death and the Maiden
Few quartets have enjoyed such a long and distinguished recording history as Death and the Maiden. Indeed, one of the earliest recorded versions, given by the Busch Quartet in the late 1930s (Warner Classics), still very much holds its own, particularly for the wonderfully moving way in which the players unfold the sequence of variations in the second movement, and for the sustained energy and tension of the Finale which is capped by a daring almost unhinged accelerando near the end. Later performances from 1970s and ’80s by the Amadeus (DG), the Alban Berg (Warner Classics) and Quartetto Italiano (Universal) also command enormous respect for the warmth and fluidity of their performances although they don’t take as many risks as the Busch Quartet.
Since then, almost every major quartet worth its salt has committed its interpretation of Death and the Maiden to disc, making the field not only extremely crowded but highly competitive. Of course, absolute technical mastery of Schubert’s ferociously difficult writing, especially in the fast and furious unison passages of the finale, has to be taken for granted, and almost all the currently available versions fulfil this requirement more than admirably. So the choice of the finest recording rests far more on the ways in which the players get to grips with sustaining the emotional anguish of Schubert’s message without being over-bearing too much of the time. Equally vital is the extent to which interpreters resist the temptation to contrive sudden artificial shifts in gear to enable there to be sufficient contrasts in mood in such a long and expansive work.
To my mind, the Takács Quartet’s 2006 recording trumps all rivals in delivering a performance that maintains an almost demonic forward momentum throughout the first, third and fourth movements. They have all the necessary power and variety of timbre to encapsulate every aspect of the music, from wildness and anger to tenderness, poignancy and even numbness of expression. But this is achieved without resorting to sentimentality or exaggerated mannerisms. As a result of their incredibly subtle mastery of Schubert’s textures, they perfectly convey the emotional ambiguity that lies behind the music’s more lyrical episodes, a good example being the gentler second idea in the first movement where the menacing viola ostinato pattern casts a distinctly uneasy light on the sweet-toned melody in thirds in the violins.
BBC Music Magazine's editor Charlotte Smith named the Takács Quartet one of the best string quartet ensembles ever
Pavel Haas Quartet
An arresting and powerful opening statement sets the scene for a thoroughly engrossing 2013 recording which achieves a similar level of urgency to that of the Takács. The Pavel Haas Quartet are particularly insightful in the way they conjure up the ghostly chill in the closing passage of the first movement, and there is a magical poignancy to the first violin’s melodic decoration of the Death and the Maiden theme in the first variation of the second movement. At the opposite end of the dynamic spectrum, there’s much to admire in the strongly punctuated, almost Brucknerian, rhythms of the Scherzo and the visceral power and wildness of the Finale.
Harmonia Mundi HMA1901990
A resonant recording helps to bolster the full-blooded nature of this 2008 interpretation. The Jerusalems are more expansive than the Takács and Pavel Haas, giving the music greater space, a good example being their deliberately hesitant response to the febrile opening flourish in the first movement. It’s a more obviously romantic view of the score, bringing calm, tenderness and warmth to the few lyrical moments, but by no means understating the music’s dark and unsettling character.
This recently released recording is a revelation. Performing on gut strings and employing very sparing use of vibrato, the Chiaroscuros enhance the originality, urgency and desperation of Schubert’s message, nowhere more compellingly than in their no-holds-barred account of the Finale which builds up to a devastating and emotionally exhausting climax. In the few moments of repose, first violinist Alina Ibragimova mesmerises the listener with her subtly inflected and poetic phrasing.
And one to avoid…
The German Mandelring Quartett enjoy the benefits of a superbly vivid SACD recording and the playing, particularly in the more lyrical sections of the score, has a great deal of finesse and sophistication. Nevertheless, the performance lacks a real cutting edge in the dramatic explosions of the first movement and the somewhat stolid tempo adopted for the Finale fails to communicate the sense of desperation that lies at the heart of the music.
Erik Levi is a journalist and critic for BBC Music Magazine and a visiting professor in music at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is a leading authority on the music of the 20th century, and has written books on the topic of music in the Nazi era, including 'Music in the Third Reich' (1994) and 'Music and the Nazis' (2010). He is also a regular broadcaster for BBC Radio 3 and is on the reviewing roster for International Piano Magazine.