Austrian composer Franz Schubert was taught music by his father, a local school master, from an early age. By the time he was 7 he had come to the attention of Antoino Salieri, then one of Vienna’s leading musical authority, and at 11 was enrolled into the Stadtkonvikt (imperial seminary) on a choral scholarship. Whilst he had been introduced to the piano and chamber music at home, at the Stadtkonvikt Schubert experienced the overtures and symphonies of Mozart, as well as operas and lieder. He was taught theory and composition by Salieri and began composing in earnest, producing his first symphony. In 1813, Schubert left the Stadtkonvikt and returned home to train as a teacher, and soon began teaching in his father’s school. In 1816, after and unsuccessful application to become Kapellmeister at Laibach, Schubert abandoned teaching to focus on composition. Schubert spent most of the rest of his short life composing. His career suffered many setbacks, but he gradually gained recognition and began mounting concerts of his own works. Unfortunately, just as he was beginning to achieve public success his health took a turn for the worse. He died of syphilis aged just 31.
It was common practice around the turn of the twentieth century for conductors to make arrangements of established chamber works in order to bring them to a wider audience. Mahler was in the habit of altering the texts of well known published scores and would frequently make considerable changes to scores he was conducting. Mahler’s friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner wrote, “One could take Schubert’s themes and start off developing them. In fact that would do them no harm at all, so utterly unelaborated are they”. Mahler obtained a score of Schubert’s eminent string quartet “Death and the Maiden” and made detailed notes indicating how the music could be arranged for string orchestra and given an opportunity to make its way into larger concert halls. What he left behind was an incomplete arrangement, marked with copious and detailed notes on instrumentation, dynamics and articulation. Long after his death, Mahler’s daughter Anna discovered the unfinished arrangement and brought it to the attention of the Mahler scholars; David Matthews and Donald Mitchell. They extracted the orchestral parts according to Mahler’s annotations and the score was published in 1984.
The famous quartet, written in 1826, is an intense work with the theme of death at its heart. The title Death and the Maiden stems from the reuse in the andante of Schubert’s song by the same name. The text is by the German Romantic Matthias Claudius and the lyrics recount an old European myth, where a sovereign (in this case, Death) demands a prenuptial night with a bride-to-be. If she declines, Death will take her betrothed on their wedding day. The Maiden sings: “Leave me, terrible spectre, I am so young, go away and let me be”. To which Death replies: “Give me your hand, beautiful and sweet creature, I am your friend, and have not come to punish you. Have courage! You will sleep sweetly in my arms’. Only Death’s section is used in the quartet.
While Death and the Maiden is a string quartet in every respect, it could also be seen as a romantic tone poem. Throughout the work, Schubert’s writing creates a dramatic scene, evoking death in all his guises, both harsh and gentle. Furthermore, the composer chooses D minor, a key which Schubert generally reserved for songs containing poignant expressions of death, penitence, shadowy dreams, and shrouded moonlight.
The terrifying opening to the Allegro movement gives the impression of a macabre fanfare, heralding Death’s arrival and his now inevitable proposition. Crafted in a typically romantic version of sonata form, this movement still manages to evoke the terror of Death’s presence, even with strict formal guidelines. In G minor, the second movement, Andante con moto, offers the haunting pulse and phrase of the chant of Death, drawn straight from Schubert’s song. This is followed by five variations of which only the fourth moves into the brighter, less foreboding key of G major before dark reality returns. The short Scherzo-Allegro also reflects the spectre of the deathly visitor, blending into major at the Trio, feigning comfort to the Maiden. The brilliant Rondo-Finale is a ghostly tarantella, creating a sense of the chase in the opening section of Schubert’s song. Built on preceding elements and cryptic references to previous movements, it whirls around rhapsodically before hurtling into its conclusion.
© Matthew Lynch, 2009