Movement 1: Allegro
Movement 2: Andante con moto
Movement 3: Scherzo: Allegro molto
Movement 4: Presto
Indeed, it is the bleakness of the context in which they appear that makes the two extended major-key sections of the ‘Death and the Maiden’ Quartet so moving. Those sections are the slow movement’s fourth variation, and the trio of the scherzo, and Schubert takes particular care to bind them together with the material that surrounds them. The slow movement’s major-mode excursion is joined seamlessly to the ensuing variation in the minor, which continues the music’s ‘rocking’ motion; while the trio’s accompaniment takes over the pervasive rhythm of the scherzo. Given the intensity of the scherzo itself, it is surprising to find that the opening of its second half quotes from a Ländler Schubert had written the previous year.
The quartet’s opening movement is characterized by a continual alternation between tension and relaxation. The triplet rhythm starkly set forth in its very first bars runs through the entire piece as a unifying force; but the main subject also features a calmer continuation—a chorale-like passage that clearly looks forward to the sombre theme of the slow movement to come. The main contrasting theme is a sinuous idea given out by the violins in mellifluous thirds and sixths, above a ‘rocking’ accompaniment from the two lower instruments. The central development section combines the rhythmic elements of both principal subjects, gradually building up the tension until it spills over into the start of the recapitulation, where the austere silences of the work’s beginning are filled in with upward-striving triplets on the three higher instruments. Towards the end, Schubert appears to be drawing the piece to an emphatic close, with a coda in a quicker tempo; but by a stroke of genius he allows the music to return to its original speed, and the piece sinks to a pianissimo close, as though all energy were spent.
For his finale, Schubert provides a tarantella of almost manic exuberance. His model is likely to have been the last movement of Beethoven’s famous ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata, and there are passages in the two works that are remarkably similar. Far more than Beethoven, however, Schubert appears to be extending an invitation to a dance of death. This time, he does allow himself a final peroration that finishes the work in helter-skelter style with an acceleration in tempo, as though the music were spiralling out of control, towards a vortex of doom.
from notes by Misha Donat © 2006