On 29 January 1826, Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828) himself played viola at the first play-through of his string quartet no. 14 in D minor, D 810, better known to us today as ‘Death and the Maiden.’ It took place in the Vienna home of amateur violinists Karl and Franz Hacker. It was only published in 1831, three years after Schubert’s death. Today it is considered one of the pillars of the string quartet repertoire.

The title of this work derives from a song or lied composed by Schubert “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (“Death and the Maiden”) in 1817, which sets to music the text of a poem of the same name by Matthias Claudius. The piano accompaniment of this song is used in the second movement (a Theme and Variations) of the quartet.

Marianne Stokes - Death and the Maiden 1900

The poem possibly alludes to an old myth prevalent in Europe, where a sovereign demands ‘Le Droit du Seigneur’ the right to spend a night with a bride-to-be, threatening that her betrothed would die if she refuses. The sovereign becomes Death incarnate in the poem, and the spectre of mortality seems to loom over the girl herself. The poem is in effect a dialogue between the young woman and Death. The woman is terrified and urges Death (“fierce man of bones”) to pass her by, as she is still young. And Death’s chilling yet placid response is “Give me your hand, you tender and beautiful form! I am a friend, and come not to punish. Be of good cheer! I am not fierce; softly shall you sleep in my arms.”

It is the sort of subject that would have appealed to Schubert, particularly at this point in his life. He was very ill in 1823, possibly due to tertiary syphilis, and had to be hospitalised. His finances were at their lowest ebb, after the failure of his opera Fierabras, and a deal with the publisher Diabelli had left him virtually unpaid.

In a letter to his friend Leopold Kupelwieser in 1824 he writes: “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, think of a man, I say, whose splendid hopes have come to naught, to whom the happiness of love and friendship offers nothing but acutest pain, whose enthusiasm (at least, the inspiring kind) for the Beautiful threatens to disappear, and ask yourself whether he isn’t a miserable, unfortunate fellow.

‘My peace is gone, my heart is heavy, I find it never, nevermore’ [a quote from another song ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ he had written earlier, based on a text from the poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s Faust] … so might I sing every day, since each night when I go to sleep I hope never again to wake, and each morning merely reminds me of the misery of yesterday.”

Also, after Schubert’s earlier trysts with the string quartet form in his teenage years, he had begun to return to it in the 1820s, with the one-movement Quartettsatz in 1820 and the Rosamunde quartet in 1824. Death and the Maiden was actually written in 1824 a few weeks after completion of the Rosamunde. What sets these later quartets including Death and the Maiden apart from the earlier ones is the part writing. In the earlier quartets, the first violin ‘sings the tune’, and the rest play supporting roles. In the later quartets, the writing is so much more complex, and each instrument has an equally important contribution to make to the overall texture and fabric of the compositional tapestry.

As Walter Wilson Cobbett writes in his book ‘Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music’: “[Schubert] had now ceased to write quartets to order, for experimental study, or for the home circle…. To the independent artist… the string quartet had now also become a vehicle for conveying to the world his inner struggles.”

The association with death is perceptible in the whole work. The first movement, which begins with explosive force, a descending figure played in unison by all instruments, seems to depict almost programmatically the struggle with death, according to Cobbett, while the second movement dwells on Death’s words (only Death’s section of Schubert’s lied is used in the quartet). The mood of foreboding lifts very briefly in the third movement a Scherzo, but hardly in the light-hearted nature of a scherzo in its usual sense. And the last movement (Presto) is a tarantella, a dance resorted to in an attempt to stave off insanity and death.

The quartet has served to inspire a play by Ariel Dorfman (1991) of the same name, and later adapted for film by Roman Polanski in 1994.

Death and the Maiden will be played by the Kelemen string quartet from Hungary, in its recital programme at the Santa Cruz church on 25 January 2014, 7.15 pm. The concert is free and open to the public.

(An edited version of this article was published on 19 January 2014 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)