The ritornello of this song is built on a repetitive and obsessive rhythm—a long note followed by two of half the length. The equivalent in poetry is the dactyl, a metrical foot within which a stressed syllable is followed by two unaccented ones. Schubert used dactylic rhythm throughout his song-writing career, most often to depict the motor energy of the inscrutable forces of nature (see notes to Die Sterne
, Volume 6). Here death, masquerading as the merciful releaser, presses the rhythm into his service and sends a sequence of terror dactyls gliding through the landscape of primeval nightmare. The key is D minor, the tonality of death since Mozart wrote the Commendatore's music in Don Giovanni
, an opera (like almost all of Mozart's stage works) by which Schubert was mightily influenced. In this introduction, the pianist's hands hardly move; the left impassively alternates between tonic and dominant, and in the right the harmonies change imperceptibly under the fingers. Wherever they stray they always come back to the same D minor chord. Whichever way you look at it, this is death; grope as you may to find an exit, he has you in hand, in his grip, and there is no escape. For this passage the pianist is appointed death's plenipotentiary. This is one of the most tactile of all songs to play: the accompanist has to weigh each change within the chords as carefully as if he were judging a life held precariously in the balance, all this without seeming to try, just as death the puppeteer manipulates human destinies with the tiniest of hand shifts. After eight bars of piano introduction (enough of death's tune, precisely half in fact, to be a calling card) there is a sudden change of tempo. The maiden, in short breathy gasps, and with the racing pulse of fear and delirium, begs for mercy but the dying fall of the repeat of the words 'und rühre mich nicht an' shows that the game is up. In a few moments the same singer enunciates death's words in death's tempo, as if the spectre has invaded the body and the very singing voice of his victim, and requisitioned it for both their ends. We hear the whole of death's tune this time, and at last, with the maiden's body in his arms, he allows himself to stray into new consoling realms of F, onwards to B flat and back to D major. The merciful release of the tonic major brings ineffable peace.
The manuscript of the song was cut into several pieces (for souvenirs) by Schubert's half-brother Hermann. Fortunately this vandalism could not destroy the musical unity of this extraordinary page. Seven years later Schubert was to compose a String Quartet in D minor (D810), a matching masterpiece of organic unity in which he used the song's ritornello as the basis for the Quartet's second movement variations, and where Death's theme in various subtle rhythmic metamorphoses is also the seed and starting point for the other movements.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991