Program Notes By Eric Bromberger
String Quartet in D Minor, D.810 “Death and the Maiden”
Born January 31, 1797, Vienna
Died November 19, 1828, Vienna
In the fall of 1822 Schubert became extremely ill, and every indication is that he had contracted syphilis. The effect on him–physically and emotionally–was devastating. He was quite ill throughout 1823, so seriously in May that he had to be hospitalized. His health had in fact been shattered permanently, and he would never be fully well again. The cause of his death five years later at 31, officially listed as typhoid, was probably at least partially a result of syphilis. Emotionally, the illness was so destructive that he never went back to complete the symphony he had been working on when he contracted the disease–it would come to be known as the “Unfinished.”
By early 1824 Schubert had regained some measure of health and strength, and he turned to chamber music, composing two string quartets, the second of them in D minor. The nickname Der Tod und Das Mädchen (“Death and the Maiden”) comes from Schubert’s use of a theme from his 1817 song by that name as the basis for a set of variations in the quartet’s second movement. In the song, which sets a poem of Matthias Claudius, death beckons a young girl; she begs him to pass her over, but he insists, saying that his embrace is soothing, like sleep. It is easy to believe that, under the circumstances, the thought of soothing death may have held some attraction for the composer.
The quartet itself is extremely dramatic. The Allegro rips to life with a five-note figure spit out by all four instruments. This hardly feels like chamber music. One can easily imagine this figure stamped out furiously by a huge orchestra, and the dramatic nature of this movement marks it as nearly symphonic (in fact, Gustav Mahler arranged this quartet for string orchestra in 1894, and that version is still performed and recorded today). A gentle second subject brings a measure of relief, but the hammering triplet of the opening figure is never far away–it can be heard quietly in the accompaniment, as part of the main theme, and as part of the development. The Allegro, which lasts a full quarter of an hour, comes to a quiet close with the triplet rhythm sounding faintly in the distance.
The Andante con moto is deceptively simple. From the song Der Tod und Das Mädchen, Schubert uses only death’s music, which is an almost static progression of chords; the melody moves quietly within the chords. But from that simple progression Schubert writes five variations that are themselves quite varied–by turns soaring, achingly lyric, fierce, calm–and the wonder is that so simple a chordal progression can yield music of such expressiveness and variety.
After two overpowering movements, the Scherzo: Allegro molto might seem almost lightweight, for it is extremely short. But it returns to the slashing mood of the opening movement and takes up that same strength. The trio sings easily in the lower voices as the first violin flutters and decorates their melodic line. An unusual feature of the trio is that it has no repeat–Schubert instead writes an extension of the trio, almost a form of variation itself.
The final movement, appropriately marked Presto, races ahead on its 6/8 rhythm. Some listeners have felt that this movement is death-haunted, and they point out that its main theme is a tarantella, the old dance of death, and that Schubert also quotes quietly from his own song Erlkönig. Significantly, the phrase he quotes in that song sets death’s words “Mein liebes Kind, komm geh mit mir” (My dear child, come go with me), which is precisely the message of the song Der Tod und das Mädchen. What this movement is “about” must be left to each listener to decide, but it is hard to believe this music death-haunted. The principal impression it makes is of overwhelming power–propulsive rhythms, huge blocks of sound, sharp dynamic contrasts–and the very ending, a dazzling rush marked Prestissimo that suddenly leaps into D major, blazes with life.
Sextet for Strings in G Major, Opus 36
Born May 7, 1833, Hamburg
Died April 3, 1897, Vienna
The Sextet in G Major is almost unique among Brahms’ works because it offers one of the most explicit emotional statements ever made by this normally-reticent composer. Brahms died a confirmed bachelor, but he fell in love with women throughout his life, and he went so far as to become engaged to one of these. She was Agathe von Siebold, the vivacious daughter of a professor at the University of Göttingen. Brahms and Agathe were engaged in 1858, when he was 25, and the couple passed several blissful months until the composer, convinced that he could never be happy if bound by marriage, broke it off, firmly and abruptly. The two never saw each other again.
The rupture was painful for both, and they responded in different ways. In her account of her life, published as a novel many years later, Agathe as an old woman finally came to terms with his decision:
[Brahms] strode by on his path to fame, and as he, like every genius, belonged to humanity, she gradually learned to appreciate his wisdom in severing the bonds which had threatened to shackle him. She saw clearly at last that she could never have filled his life with her great love.
Brahms looked back with sharply-mixed feelings–relief, regret, guilt, pain, nostalgia–and several years later he did something quite rare for him: he made an overt expression of his emotions in his own music. In the first movement of the Sextet in G Major, composed during the summers of 1864 and 1865, Brahms included a musical motif based on the letters of Agathe’s name. The sequence of notes A – G – A – H – E (H is B in German musical notation) occurs several times, and Brahms made its significance clear when he said to a friend: “Here I have freed myself from my last love.”
The Sextet should not be understood simply as a tribute to a woman the composer had loved, or (as some have suggested) as the composer’s farewell to the possibilities of love, but this warm and gentle (and sometimes complex) music is suffused with a depth of feeling. The first measures of the Allegro non troppo establish its mood of calm but unsettled beauty. The music opens with the hypnotic murmuring of the first viola, and quickly the first violin offers the main theme, a gently-singing idea that glides easily between G major and E-flat major as it rises and falls. That quietly-oscillating accompaniment and subtle handling of tonality will both be central to this music. The wonderful second subject–music full of sunlight and health–leads to the “Agathe” motif just before the start of the development. There is something plaintive about that figure here, as if it is what Brahms called (in another work) Rückblick: a “glance backward.” Brahms titles the second movement Scherzo, but this is a very unusual scherzo. It is in duple rather than the expected triple meter, and the pace is not fast–Allegro non troppo. Brahms had written its main theme–decorated continuously with mordents–as part of a piano piece a decade earlier. The measured pace of this “scherzo” is blasted aside at the trio section, which goes into 3/4 and leaps ahead at a blistering pace. Presto giocoso (“fast, merry”), says Brahms, and this unbuttoned and rollicking episode has more than a whiff of gypsy music about it.
The Adagio is in theme-and-variation form. The theme itself–marked molto espressivo–is slow, though its multi-layered accompaniment is rhythmically complex and full of chromatic tension. Brahms, who was fascinated by variation form throughout his life, had just completed his Paganini Variations before writing this Sextet, and some of the complexity of that set can be felt in the five variations here, though eventually this movement reaches a conclusion full of radiant calm. By contrast, the good-natured Poco Allegro swings easily along its main theme in 9/8, heard immediately after the bustling rush of the introduction. This finale is in sonata form, and Brahms opens the development by treating that introductory material fugally. The rapid chatter of those steady sixteenths is heard throughout, and finally that energetic pulse rushes the movement to its spirited close on a coda marked Animato.
Is the Sextet in G Major an autobiographical composition, one that “tells” the story of this moment in its creator’s life? Absolutely not, and Brahms would have been the first to insist that it be heard as abstract music. But this music’s flickering between light and dark, its sharp mixture of energy and plaintiveness, and its motivic remembrance of vanished love should alert us that the Sextet in G Major had special, if very private, meaning for its young composer.