Composing while Death is Knocking on the Door

The Austrian painter Egon Schiele painted Death embracing a maiden in 1915/16.
The Austrian painter Egon Schiele painted Death embracing a maiden in 1915/16.

Death – one of the mysteries of life. A recurrent subject for painters, sculptors, poets and composers. The Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was obsessed by this subject, perfectly in line with other creative geniuses during the German Romantic period. In 1817 he set to music “Death and the Maiden”, a poem by the writer Matthias Claudius.

Das Mädchen:
Vorüber! Ach, vorüber!
Geh, wilder Knochenmann!
Ich bin noch jung, geh Lieber!
Und rühre mich nicht an.

Der Tod:
Gib deine Hand, du schön und zart Gebild!
Bin Freund, und komme nicht, zu strafen.
Sei gutes Muts! ich bin nicht wild,
Sollst sanft in meinen Armen schlafen!

From song to quartet

While the Lied has its own merits, it inspired Schubert 1824 to his String Quartet No. 14 in D minor (D.810) which is one of the Schubert’s pieces that has had a profound impression on me. The first movement opens dramatically, but this introduction is compounded immediately by a more gentle melody, the two elements render the tension between life and death and permeate also the third and the fourth movement, which takes up the main theme from the first movement. The second movement however is different, it takes up the melody of Schubert’s earlier song.

Schubert composed this quartet during one of the many difficult periods in his life. He suffered from syphilis, a common infection in those days, especially in artist circles, and since there was no treatment, it was clear that he would die in a not too distant future. At the same time, he was desperate as the Vienna audience did not acknowledge him as a composer of operas. Both his music and the libretti had fallen through. “I am the most unhappy and wretched man on earth, every night, when I go to sleep, I hope not to wake up anymore”, he wrote on 31 March 1824.

A productive year

However Schubert was not to be discouraged from composing by such circumstances, the more desperate he was the more productive he became. “Schubert is inhumanely zealous”, Moritz von Schwind, a painter and friend of Schubert, noted in March 1824. During spring, he completed the variations on the song “Dry Flowers” for flute and piano (D.802) and the String Quartet in A minor (D.804), later that year he composed another work that I adore and that I have discussed already in an earlier post: the Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano (D.812).

The Tanayev Quartet has recorded D.810 in 1972, the recording I have, but there are dozen others. I could recommend the one by the Melos Quartet (1975) and the one by Emerson String Quartet (1988)

© Charles Thibo

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