Franz Schubert (arr. Hersh)
Composer: born January 31, 1797, Vienna; died November 19, 1828, Vienna
Work composed: March 1824; dedicated to violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh.
World premiere: First performed in a private gathering at the home of Josef Barth on February 1, 1826
Instrumentation: string orchestra
Estimated duration: 10 minutes
In 1824, 27-year-old Franz Schubert was physically and mentally worn out from his years-long battle with syphilis, a battle he lost four years later. The disease caused him extreme pain and weakness, and amplified his tendency to depression. On March 31, 1824, Schubert wrote to a friend, “I feel myself to be the most unfortunate, the most miserable being in the world. Think of a man whose health will never be right again, and who from despair over the fact makes it worse instead of better … My peace is gone, my heart is heavy … each night when I go to sleep I hope never again to wake, and each morning merely reminds me of the misery of yesterday.”
The String Quartet in D minor reflects Schubert’s understandable preoccupation with mortality, from its powerful opening notes through the meditative, soothing Andante; from the angry denunciations of the Scherzo to the breathless defiance of the Presto. The nickname “Death and the Maiden” comes from Schubert’s 1817 setting of Matthias Claudius’ eponymous poem, written in the form of a dialogue between Death and a young woman. The maiden pleads for her life, while Death woos her with promises of an eternal, all-embracing sleep. Schubert repurposed Death’s melody from the song as the basis for the second movement’s theme and variations.
© Elizabeth Schwartz
NOTE: These program notes are published here by the Modesto Symphony Orchestra for its patrons and other interested readers. Any other use is forbidden without specific permission from the author, who may be contacted at www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com
This set of variations on the lied "Der Tod und das Mädchen" is an orchestration of the complete second movement of the String Quartet No. 14 "Death and the Maiden," functioning in this arrangement as a standalone concert piece for chamber orchestra. The string section presents the unaltered theme, while the five subsequent variations and coda explore various orchestral colors. I have attempted to preserve Schubert's original markings wherever possible, but I also took an occasional liberty to better serve this symphonic milieu.