Schubert’s D minor quartet is the cry of despair of a man under sentence of death, those Romantic and melodramatic songs he set to music in another carefree world had suddenly become real. Those remorseless galloping hooves as the hapless father with his feverish and dying son in his arms hopelessly tries to escape the Erlkönig can now be heard by Schubert himself. And the cold grip of Death as he takes the Maiden in his arms is an ever-present fear. This is all brutally and disgustingly present and the desperate composer can only try to cheat death by overcoming him with music.
The power, bordering on savagery, of the writing is there from the opening challenge, as though Schubert is daring us not to listen to what he has to say, and this challenge goes on to meet its appalled climax in the coda of this opening movement. The first thematic outburst is gradually softened, dynamically as well as harmonically before the theme takes off in the frantic pursuit by the Erlkönig, interrupted only by the violent chords from the opening. The gentler second theme is still haunted by the pursuing triplets before the first theme forces its way back and builds to a whole series of violent conclusions. After the exposition repeat, a massive chord cuts straight into the development, which further unsettles us by combining both subjects at the same time. The recapitulation follows without a break leading us to the appalled coda with its great gasp of horror that evolves into one last pursuit hurtling towards the violin’s desperate pleas for help.
The cry for help is met by the strict formality of a theme with five variations and a coda from whose self-imposed restriction there is no escape. The music is taken from the piano accompaniment to the voice of Death in the song, constructing in the process a new binary form theme in G minor.
The consoling mood of the theme is harmonically constricted by Schubert’s sense of horror at what is happening to him. The first three variations see a gradual increase in time values; in the first the theme is given to the middle voices with the cello’s pizzicato underpinning the first violin’s decorations, the second has the theme in the viola while the third sees a unison and fortissimo attack. The fourth variation bursts out with the galloping triplets, while the fifth sees a slow crescendo to a dreadful climax that fades quietly into the coda’s bell-like echoes of Death’s theme.
The Scherzo reverts to the tough D minor mood of the first movement, which makes it all the more surprising to find out that Schubert has borrowed the theme from one of his hundreds of keyboard dances. The Trio is more soothing, in the customary binary form but with the repeats varied. The presto finale returns to the nocturnal gallop of the opening movement, propelled by an obsessive rhythmic figure of seemingly inexhaustible energy until chillingly interrupted by another metamorphosis of the Death theme. And so Schubert works out in these last extraordinary pages his dreaded vision of beauty and horror, galloping together endlessly through the night.