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String Quartet No 14 in D minor D. 810 'Death and the Maiden'

Franz Schubert (b. 1797 - d. 1828)

Chiaroscuro Quartet

Chiaroscuro Quartet

Composer
Franz Schubert (b. 1797 - d. 1828)
Composition Year
1824
Work Movements
1. Allegro
2. Andante con moto
3. Scherzo: Allegro molto
4. Presto
Artists
Chiaroscuro Quartet (Alina Ibragimova, Pablo Hernán Benedí [violins], Emilie Hörnlund [viola], Claire Thirion [cello])

Programme Note Writer:
© Francis Humphrys

This performance of Death and the Maiden will require some aural re-tuning. Chiaroscuro play at the lower classical pitch of A430 as well as on gut strings with minimal vibrato. So we can expect a very different view of a familiar masterpiece.

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. For him personally this is all brutally and disgustingly present and the desperate composer can only try to cheat death by overcoming him with music.

The power 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. This 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. In these last extraordinary pages Schubert works out his dreaded vision of beauty and horror galloping together endlessly through the night.

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String Quartet No 14 in D minor D. 810 'Death and the Maiden'

Composer: Franz Schubert (b. 1797 - d. 1828)
Performance date: Monday 4th July 2016
Venue: St. Brendan's Church, Bantry, Co Cork, Ireland

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Composer Franz Schubert (b. 1797 - d. 1828)
Work Title String Quartet No 14 in D minor D. 810 'Death and the Maiden'
Composition Year 1824
Work Movements 1. Allegro
2. Andante con moto
3. Scherzo: Allegro molto
4. Presto
Artist(s) Chiaroscuro Quartet (Alina Ibragimova, Pablo Hernán Benedí [violins], Emilie Hörnlund [viola], Claire Thirion [cello])
Performance Date Monday 4th July 2016
Performance Venue St. Brendan's Church, Bantry, Co Cork, Ireland
Event Main Evening Concert
Duration 00:42:00
Recording Engineer Richard McCullough, RTÉ lyric fm
Instrumentation Category String Quartet
Instrumentation 2vn, va, vc
Programme Note Writer © Francis Humphrys

This performance of Death and the Maiden will require some aural re-tuning. Chiaroscuro play at the lower classical pitch of A430 as well as on gut strings with minimal vibrato. So we can expect a very different view of a familiar masterpiece.

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. For him personally this is all brutally and disgustingly present and the desperate composer can only try to cheat death by overcoming him with music.

The power 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. This 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. In these last extraordinary pages Schubert works out his dreaded vision of beauty and horror galloping together endlessly through the night.