Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
[Who is riding so
late through night and storm?]
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.
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
Ich bin noch jung,
Und rühre mich
[I am still young,
leave me beloved,
And trouble me no
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.
gutes Muts! Ich bin nicht wild,
Sollst sanft in
meinen Armen schlafen!
(Be of good cheer!
I am not violent.
Gently will you
sleep in my arms.)
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.
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.