Tis the Season for Death…(and the Maiden)



As the season turns, the feeling of death slowly envelops us. What begins with a beauty of change slowly dawns with the realization that winter is indeed coming. And though each winter season is different, like every life, death comes marching along just the same.

The concept of Death (capital “D”) was a theme that has obsessed composers, artists, writers and the general public from the dawning of the time. Early cave drawings depict not only scenes of life, but also an afterlife of fantastical underworlds (and overworlds). Many of the earliest known burial sites show that humans were indeed expecting something, as weapons and other power items were packed in the grave to accompany the journey to the afterlife.

That Death is an eternal theme throughout our human history is no wonder. Who among us has not pondered it at one time or another? A nagging reminder for most, it becomes an obsession for others. Cultural norms develop and concentrate on making this transition in a healthy way. In many cultures, death receives a personification; as an entity, spectre or god.


European culture had been obsessed with such a personification since at least the Middle Ages—long before both Schubert and Mahler considered the concept. Death as a personification, and also as unavoidable reality, is expressed musically in many of their works. The focus even affects the chosen keys of a piece of music. For the string quartet known as “Death and the Maiden Franz Schubert chose to write in D minor, a key that is often used for expressions of death, moonlight and shadows.

Gustav Mahler became fascinated not only with the thematic elements, but also with the written score of Schubert’s 14th String Quartet, known as “Death and the Maiden,” planning to bring the piece to the concert stage in a new realization for string orchestra. Mahler never completed his edits of Schubert’s score, however, and only the second movement saw a performance in his lifetime. Long after his death, Mahler’s daughter rediscovered the score which was later edited and finally performed in its entirety in 1984.

Schubert’s 14th string quartet takes it’s subtitle from a song of the same name written in 1817. The text reflects both the terror and comfort of death—both the event and the personification. For the quartet, Schubert chose to use only the portion of the song that accompanies “Death” in the song. Although it only appears as the basis for a set of variations in the 2nd movement, Schubert continues the mood of the entire song throughout the quartet—the dichotomy of Death providing both terror and comfort, and the accompanying contrast of light and dark, resulting in what many consider to be an early tone poem.

Here’s the short text from Schubert’s song (text by Matthias Claudius) (from Wikipedia)

Original German English Translation
Das Mädchen:

Vorüber! Ach, vorüber!

Geh, wilder Knochenmann!

Ich bin noch jung! Geh, lieber,

Und rühre mich nicht an.

Und rühre mich nicht an.

Der Tod:

Gib deine Hand, du schön und zart Gebild!

Bin Freund, und komme nicht, zu strafen.

Sei gutes Muts! ich bin nicht wild,

Sollst sanft in meinen Armen schlafen!

The Maiden:

Pass me by! Oh, pass me by!

Go, fierce man of bones!

I am still young! Go, rather,

And do not touch me.

And do not touch me.


Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender form!

I am a friend, and come not to punish.

Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,

Softly shall you sleep in my arms!

Luckily, those in the Salt Lake City area can hear Sinfonia Salt Lake perform the Mahler transcription of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden, Monday, October 10 at 7:30 p.m. at the Salt Lake Masonic Temple Auditorium. Details and tickets here: www.sinfoniasaltlake.com

Just how powerful is the music you will hear Monday night? Apparently, very powerful indeed. At the state funeral of Norwegian statesman and polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen Schubert’s music replaced the normal eulogies. Rather than speeches reviewing Nansen’s great contributions the audience sat quietly and reflected as Schubert’s Death and the Maiden was performed.

“We all have a Land of Beyond to seek in our life—what more can we ask? Our part is to find the trail that leads to it. A long trail, a hard trail, maybe; but the call comes to us, and we have to go. Rooted deep in the nature of every one of us is the spirit of adventure, the call of the wild—vibrating under all our actions, making life deeper and higher and nobler” ~ Fridtjof Nansen (Norwegian Polar Explorer and Statesman)


Copyright, 2016, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Photo Credits: http://deathroq12.blogspot.com/

Photo 1: Madeline Von Foerster. “The Promise II ”

Photo 2: Travis Louie, “Miss Margaret and the Spirit of Death”