FRANZ SCHUBERT – Death and the Maiden – SQ No. 14

Schubert died before his 32nd birthday. He wrote over 20 string quartets but only 15 were ever published. His most famous quartet is undoubtedly No. 14, known as Death and the Maiden. It was written in 1824 and has four movements. It is generally recognised as one of the masterpieces of the Romantic era.

String Quartet No. 14 opens with a very spirited minor key, chordal phrase. It then moves into a gentler, melodic passage, before slowly increasing the intensity until it redevelops the opening melody at some length. Now we have a charming passage, where virtuosic violins display their wares. A key change takes place, and the melodies keep coming. I’m now starting to realise how influential Schubert was, as I hear overtones of other composers. The melodies remain sprightly, but eventually become more agitated. The intensity drops to introduce a serious passage and then variations on the opening phrase are heard. The mood lightens for a time but the virtuosic violins return. The melodic variations are wonderful, and references to previous melodies are heard. A brief pause leads into a dynamic passage, and then, further melodic variations are examined. As the movement winds down, a fade out occurs.

The next movement, an andante, begins in a funereal manner, with quiet violins almost droning. A sombre melody evolves, and the harmonic nature of this section is wonderful. A tempo now emerges, with a skipping melody and a pronounced cello part. The music becomes slightly rhapsodic, in a gentle manner. The minor tonality becomes very evident here, with measured violin melodic lines. A slight rise in intensity follows and a longing feeling is established. There is a hint of a section from the first movement. Now the violins generate a more rhythmic feeling, which is strengthened as the music moves forward. A new passage is introduced and the mood is convivial; no minor key here. After a time, the mood darkens slightly, then a delicate section gives way to a more dynamic feeling. Nearing the end, the music retreats into itself and the sound is very sparse. A quite interlude concludes this movement.

The third movement commences with a fabulous melody, filled with life. Variations occur but the mood is maintained. This is a beautiful sound. Now a delicate melody, with gentle harmonies, moves forward. A recapitulation of the opening melody is heard, and this short movement reaches an end.

The final movement is of a galloping nature, featuring some harmonies that were introduced earlier in the work. The music is suddenly busy, both melodically and rhythmically. A Beethoven-influenced mood follows, then strong chords introduce a new passage; things are still very rhythmic. The galloping feeling returns, this time with the rhythm broken up at times, allowing the violins to express freely and return to previous melodies. A dramatic passage ensues, as a minor tonality alters the melodies. Another section is repeated, and reharmonised. The rhythm remains insistent, and several false endings only add to this wonderful feeling. Another recapitulation follows, and strong violins move to a conclusion with a flourish.

As this work is so popular, it is no surprise to find more than 1600 recordings on Amazon UK. It seems that every string quartet in the world has recorded it. It is also featured heavily on Spotify and YouTube with ten versions to be found on earsense.

Listenability: An iconic, marvellous Romantic quartet.


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