Death and the Maiden – String Quartet No. 14 in D minor by Franz Shubert (source).

1823 and 1824 were hard years for Schubert. For much of 1823 he was sick, some scholars believe with an outburst of tertiary stage syphilis, and in May had to be hospitalized. 

He was also without money: he had entered into a disastrous deal with Diabelli to publish a batch of works, and received almost no payment; and his latest attempt at opera, Fierabras, was a flop.

For Schubert, who lived a life suspended between the lyrical, romantic, charming and the dramatic, chaotic, and depressive, the string quartet offered a medium “to reconcile his essentially lyric themes with his feeling for dramatic utterance within a form that provided the possibility of extreme color contrasts,” writes music historian Homer Ulrich.

The quartet takes its name from the liedDer Tod und das Mädchen”, D 531, a setting of a poem of the same name by Matthias Claudius which Schubert wrote in 1817. The theme of the song forms the basis of the second movement of the quartet. The theme is a death knell that accompanies the song about the terror and comfort of death:

The Maiden:

Oh! leave me! Prithee, leave me! thou grisly man of bone!For life is sweet, is pleasant.Go! leave me now alone!Go! leave me now alone!


Give me thy hand, oh! maiden fair to see,For I’m a friend, hath ne’er distress’d thee.Take courage now, and very soonWithin mine arms shalt softly rest thee!“

So strong is the association of death with the quartet that some analysts consider it to be programmatic, rather than absolute music. “The first movement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden string quartet can be interpreted in a quasi-programmatic fashion, even though it is usually viewed as an abstract work,” writes Deborah Kessler.

Theologian Frank Ruppert sees the quartet as a musical expression of Judaeo-Christian religious myths. “This quartet, like so many of Schubert’s works, is a kind of para-liturgy,” he writes. Each movement is about a different episode in the mythic process of death and resurrection.

What’s your interpretation?    

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