As morbid as it may seem today, preoccupation with death was quite fashionable in the nineteenth century. The Romantic movement in music, drama, art, and literature embraced the idea of death as transcendent and fulfilling rather than fearsome. Medical science was still in its infancy, and the only real cure for many illnesses was the end of life. Death was gentle. Death was peace. Death was an end to suffering.
In this light, Franz Schubert's own fascination with death was neither unusual nor inexplicable. In March 1824, having endured the symptoms of syphilis for nearly two years, he wrote, "Each night when I go to sleep, I hope never to wake again, and each morning serves only to recall the misery of the previous day."
Since the still-youthful composer was not yet consigned to the grave, he continued to develop his musical genius, and in this same month he completed the original version of the String Quartet in D minor, "Der Tod und das Mädchen" (Death and the Maiden). Based on the opening theme from his song of the same name (1817), this quartet clearly illustrates Schubert's sympathy, even longing, for death. By appropriating the music of the song, Schubert also imbues the quartet with the sentiments of the original text, in which Death urges a frightened maiden to trust him: he means her no harm, and she will sleep soundly in his arms.
This work is significant for several reasons. It is considered one of Schubert's finest chamber works, and it has always occupied a favored spot in the string quartet repertory. Its frankly programmatic content connects it with later nineteenth century works, in which structural concerns yielded to extramusical and dramatic influences. Finally, the quartet is a striking reminder to those who like to pigeonhole Schubert as a miniaturist or as a "song composer": it stands alongside the "Unfinished" Symphony and the Wanderer-Fantasie as a testament to his sense of large-scale organization and to the promise unfulfilled as a result of his early death.
The work begins aggressively, with full-throated gestures that establish both the thematic and rhythmic structure of the first movement. Schubert makes use of one of his signature rhythmic devices, a quarter note followed by triplet eighths. The second theme is sweetly lyrical, joyful and upbeat, full of life and energy. The movement ends breathlessly but sweetly.
The second movement, a fourteen-minute Andante con moto, introduces the "Death" theme, which corresponds to the opening piano introduction of "Der Tod und das Mädchen." Five variations on the theme follow, all of which vary only slightly from the original, as if Death is insistent -- not swayed or deterred.
At less than four minutes, the third-movement scherzo is abrupt and puzzling, as if its only function is to serve as prologue to the driving, almost demonic finale. It is rhythmically challenging, and features unexpected accents and cadences.
In the final movement, Schubert applies his customary momentum and drive to first establish and then build an inexorable rush. The figure of a dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth note is used throughout as the driving force, though it is frequently interrupted. In the end, Death is relentless, and the movement swirls to a massive but abrupt conclusion.