Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Schubert, String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, “Death and the Maiden”

“Death and the Maiden” by Marianne Stokes (1900)
“Death and the Maiden” by Marianne Stokes (1900)

Today is Halloween.

Surprise, right?  As if you didn’t know.

For today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes, I had considered recognizing the date by writing a post on “appropriately ghoulish concert works for your Halloween party.”  I began assembling a list of the usual horrific suspects – Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, movements 4 and 5 (respectively entitled “March to the Scaffold” and “Dream of a Witch’s Sabbath”); Camille Saint-Saëns’ Dance Macabre; Franz Liszt’s Totentanz; the theme song from Petticoat Junction (“and there’s Uncle Joe, he’s-a movin’ kinda slow, at the Junction . . .”; damn, but that’ll send shivers up your spine!); and so forth.  

However, I soon realized that I was contemplating not a Dr. Bob Prescribes-type article, but rather, the sort of post for which the internet was invented: top ten (or twenty or thirty) liszts (yes, that was intentional) that present us with an array of items even as those items are trivialized by appearing on the list and by the minimal bit of explanation that accompanies them.

As a public service, then, I have reviewed an all-too-large number of such “Halloween concert music” posts on the internet, and would recommend the following as the best of the bunch, with the understanding that “best of the bunch” is, in fact, a very low bar: “Playlist: 31 Freaky and Frightening Classical Works to Haunt Your Halloween,” by Hannah Edgar, published October 24, 2017.  

As we observed in yesterday’s Music History Monday post, Schubert cut his musical teeth writing songs; his first masterworks were songs.  It was through writing songs that Schubert learned how to convey laser-like literary and expressive meaning with remarkable brevity and intensity.  It was through writing songs that Schubert discovered and learned to exploit his amazing gifts as a melodist, harmonist and as a dramatist.  Song-like melody infused his music from the beginning of his career to the end, whether that music was written for voice, piano, string quartet or orchestra.  

In honor of Schubert, his songs, and the music he composed following his syphilis diagnosis in 1822, we turn to his String Quartet in D Minor of 1824, subtitled “Death of the Maiden.”  The string quartet is so subtitled because it features music Schubert composed for the song Death and the Maiden in 1817, when he was 20 years old. …

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