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String quartet in d minor (arr. for orchestra by Gustav Mahler), D 810

"Death and the Maiden"
Franz Schubert
1824
Length: 42'
I. Allegro
II. Andante con moto
III. Scherzo: Allegro - Trio
IV. Presto - Prestissimo

The Maiden:
 "It's all over! alas, it's all over now!
 Go, savage man of bone!
 I am still young - go, devoted one!
 And do not molest me."

Death:
 "Give me your hand, you fair and tender form!
 I am a friend; I do not come to punish.
 Be of good cheer! I am not savage.
 You shall sleep gently in my arms."

Some famous violinist rejected Schubert’s quartet in d minor ‘Death and The Maiden’ D810 at first. It suffered the same fate as the great g major Quartet D887 and the incomparable String Quintet D956, whose performances and later triumphs the composer did not live to see, even though he wrote it at the age of 27. It became one of his most beloved chamber music works.

The quartet’s initial measures could hardly be more strict and dramatic, and are immediately answered by whispered versions of the same theme, responding fearfully and filled with questioning. It reminds of the casting out of Eden. The tension between these two faces make the drama of the movement.

The second movement is responsible for the quartet’s nickname, since it is a set of variations on Schubert’s song “Death and the Maiden”. The composer shows his doubt of the idea of Death in his music in the third variation of this movement, the rhythm of the theme repeated compulsively four times as fast, with the subtle answers in the first half of the variation vanishing in the second. An exploration of a possible sense of final peace is allowed before a scaring, inevitable but very slow building to the peak of the movement. Its conclusion shines with the ambiguity of resignation.

The Scherzo is full with punching offbeat accents, its anxiety is dissipated in the trio which follows. Soft throughout, this trio is a perfect illustration of the inaccessible Eden Schubert dreams of, endlessly out of reach. The reappearance of the Scherzo dashes any such hopes, of course, and the movement comes to sizzling end, setting up the spirited final movement.

The final movement, Presto, keeps finding itself hazardously floating in major keys. Forcefully and without relief, the movement as it approaches its end, erupts into a Prestissimo coda which rushes to the final, pitiless chords of the quartet.

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