Schubert - String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, 'Death and the Maiden'

Jane Jones choses a featured work that unites two of Schubert's extraordinary talents.

Schubert's String Quartet No.14 in D minor brings together two of the composer's extraordinary talents. Schubert had a natural instinct for melody and song. His 600 Lieder (songs) and his song cycles are among the most expressive works in all music, connecting with human emotions in a deeply profound way. It’s impossible to separate Schubert's music from his own experience and, for me, this work always seems to capture his essence. 

First, there’s the man. The quartet was written in 1824 when his health was a cause for concern. He wrote to a friend, 'Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and who, in sheer despair over this, even makes things worse instead of better. Imagine a man, I say, whose most brilliant hopes have perished…’ 

This music, then, is a reflection of Schubert’s state of mind. It’s filled with that resignation he spoke off, as well as an all-pervading anguish and yearning. Not only was his body sick – so was his soul. 

Then there’s the song. The title 'Death and the Maiden' comes from one of Schubert’s earlier pieces in which a terror-stricken maiden begs death to pass her by. But death consoles her saying 'I am not rough, you shall sleep gently in my arms'. It's impossible to listen to all four movements of the quartet without an awareness of death’s shadow stalking Schubert and emerging in the most funereal passages. 

Musically, this is a masterwork among quartets. Using the theme from his original song and building variations upon it, Schubert creates a pattern where the dark and powerful opening is met by the soft lyrical reply of the maiden. Or is it the defiance and terror of the maiden, met by the gentle subverting caress of death? It’s a dialogue which continues throughout the quartet, and there’s little escape from the fear and the fury in the overall sombre tone of the music. 

Can this possibly be music you'd want to listen to? Well, on this website I have read that sad music can make you happy. Certainly this is a deeply melancholic work - but never underestimate the power of even the saddest music to enrich our own emotional make-up.