Death and the Maiden

“Think of a man whose health can never be restored, and who from sheer despair makes matters worse instead of better. Think, I say, of a man whose brightest hopes have come to nothing, to whom love and friendship are but torture, and whose enthusiasm for the beautiful is fast vanishing; and ask yourself if such a man is not truly unhappy.”

Yes, think of that man. The man was Franz Schubert, and the quotation above is an excerpt from a letter he wrote to a friend. He has just suffered through two years of illness, he is financially destitute, his latest attempt to write the opera Fierabras has flopped, and he also realizes that he is dying (he died four years later). Schubert is in pain, and he goes on to compose a chamber music masterpiece called Death and the Maiden that has pain written all over it. But listen carefully: it is not all pain; there are bright spots of hope that shine through this piece.

Death and the Maiden falls into the category of music that most people (I for sure) have to listen many, many times to understand. It is full of nuances that you won’t hear the first few times you listen to it.

Originally it was written for a quartet (two violins, viola, and cello). About seventy years later, in 1896, Gustav Mahler transcribed this piece for orchestra.

  • Death and the Maiden – quartet

  • Death and the Maiden – Gustav Mahler’s transcription

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