“The Death and the Maiden” D. 810 by Franz Schubert

Categories: DeathViolin

Franz Peter Schubert was born on the 31st of January 1797 in Lichtental, Austria which is near Vienna. He has fifteen brothers and sisters, but only five of them live to see their first birthday. The father, Franz Teodor is the Principal in a local school. The mother, Elizabeth Viets was a cook in a Viennese family. When Franz Schubert was just five-year-old he started playing the violin and his teacher was his own father. Three years later, Michael Holzer, who was the parish priest in the town, started to teach the eight-year-old composer how to play the organ.

Franz Schubert composed his first piece at the age of just ten. In 1808, he started singing in the courtier choir. Not only he was a soloist in the choir but did he play in the section of second violins in the orchestra. This way, he came to know the music of Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. At this time, Shubert was taught by Antonio Salieri.

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After graduating from a teaching seminary in 1814, Schubert worked as a teacher alongside his father until 1818. The three year period between 1818 and 1821 is probably the toughest test in the composer’s life. Shubert was trying to earn enough giving private lessons but the money was really insufficient. He was not able to find a full-time job either, so he had to live with some of his friends – other composers and poets. In 1818 and 1820 as a musical teacher of count Esterhazy’s daughters, the young composer had the chance to visit Hungary.

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Schubert learnt a lot about the Hungarian national music and the Gypsy music during these visits.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, his songs become very popular in Hungary and Austria after 1821 when he managed to publish some of his works with his friends’ help. Franz Schubert is the composer of some of the greatest classical master pieces ever written such as “The Unfinished Symphony” No. 8 D 759, the piano quintet “The Trout” D. 667, the string quartet “The Death and the Maiden” D 810 and of course his more than 600 songs. Schubert is also the pioneer of the song cycle genre, composing pieces such as Die Winterreise D.911, and Die Schone Mullerin D. 795. The composer died on November the 19th 1928 in Vienna.

This essay has been prepared to examine several different aspects of Franz Schubert’s chamber music by mainly giving examples from the string quartet “Death and the Maiden” D. 810 and the song “Der Tod und Das Madchen” D. 531. Analyses and connection between the poem “Der Tod und Das Madchen” by Matthias Claudius, the song and the string quartet “The Death and the Maiden” by Franz Schubert will also be included. Also, the extent to which Schubert has taken the vocal melody and made it idiomatic for the string instruments will be explored.

Most of the Schubert’s songs are really connected with poetry. He used to work with poets such as Goethe and Schiller, who had a huge impact onto the composer’s works. Christoph Wolff suggests that the things which Shubert mostly liked in the Matthias Claudius’ poems were the purity and simplicity of the poetic language. (Bandura-Skoda, Branscombe, 1982, 144). The song “The Death and The Maiden” D. 531, which was composed by Franz Schubert in 1815 is based on the poem “Der Tod und Das Madchen” by Matthias Claudius which was written in 1775. The poem consists of two stanzas as example one shows.

Das MadchenDer Tod:

Voruber! Ach, voruber!Gib deine Hand, du schon und zart Gebild! Geh, wilder Knochenmann!Bin Freund, und komme nicht, zu strafen. Ich bin noch jung! Geh lieber,Sei gutes Muts! Ich bin nicht wild, Und ruhre mich nicht an.Sollst sanft in meinen Armen schalfen!

The Maiden: Death:

Pass me by! Oh, pass me by! Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender form! Go, fierce man of bones! I am a friend, and come no to punish. I am still young! Go, rather, Be of good cheer! I am not fierce, And do not touch me. Softly shall you sleep in my arms!

Example 1 – The poem “Der Tod und Das Madchen”.

It is clear to see that the poem is in a form of a dialog between “The Maiden” and “The Death”. A key feature in the first stanza is the short sentences, ending with an exclamation mark. This shows that the girl is frightened and afraid of “The Death”. On the other hand, “The Death” in the second stanza is meant to be scary and dangerous, but instead of that it sounds harmless and even makes a compliment in the opening words: “Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender form”. Anyhow, there is an interesting fact about the title of the poem “Der Tod und Das Madchen”, therefore the names of the song and the string quartet by Schubert “The Death and The Maiden”, which is the reverse order of the two stanzas compare with the title which shows the serious presence of Death even before the opening words.

The song “The Death and The Maiden” D. 531 by Schubert is logically as contrasting as the poem which it is based on. The opening eight bars of the song are just an introduction to the following piece. From bar nine onwards, Schubert uses very smart resources to establish the scary and anxiety atmosphere such as chromatism and quicker metric rhythm, as it can be seen on example two.

Example 2 – the song “The Death and The Maiden” D. 531 It can be said that the Maiden is giving up resisting the Death between bars sixteen and twenty-one and there are few evidence supporting this idea. Firstly, the vocal line is going downwards which is a sign of humility. Secondly, the metric rhythm in these six bars is calm and uninterested, exactly as it was in the very opening of the song. Lastly, the fermata in bar twenty-one could be the final clue that the Maiden is already given up fighting. After this really dramatic moment for the listener, Schubert introduces the second character in the piece – “The Death”. (Bandura-Skoda, Branscombe, 1982, 152) The composer sets the tempo of the introduction as a tempo for the second part of the song. There is a little dynamic detail, however really important.

The dynamic in the first part of the song (the part of “The Maiden”) is p while in the second part (the part of “The Death”) is pp. By using this technique, Shubert makes the lyrics of “the Death” sound even more shocking. The opening words in the second stanza are so important that the composer keeps the vocal line on the tonic of D minor for nearly six whole bars. The words: “Gieb deine Hand, du schon und zart Gebuild!”, which translates as follows: “Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender form!” are accompanied by quite a simple harmony pattern. Schubert uses the tonic of the D minor in the first bar of the second part of the song and then the sub-dominant is used in the second bar which develops into its first inversion in the following bar. The composer goes back to the tonic in the fourth bar, but just to set a much more interesting harmonic pattern for the second verse of the stanza: “Bin Freud, und komme nicht, zu strafen”, which means: “I am a friend, and come not to punish”.

In the fifth bar of the second part of the song the chord being used is the first inversion of the supertonic seventh which changes to the second inversion of the same chord in the first part of the following bar. However, the chord used in the second part of the bar in question, which is bar six of the second part of the song, is the seventh of the sub-dominant. The composer uses bar seven for a transition to the new key of F major, which is established in the eighth bar. The harmony is being changed from sub-dominant to the tonic of F major and back to the first inversion of the sub-dominant in the frames of the next bar. During the next two bars – ten and eleven, the tonic – sub-dominant movement in F major continues.

“The Death” ends with the words: “Sollst Sanft in Meinen Armen Schafen” which translates as: “Softly shall you sleep in my arms”. Schubert goes back to D minor in this last passage; also, the composer uses the “French” augmented 6th for the word “Schlafen”. This chord seems to be the perfect one to finish the idea of “the Death” with, as it sounds unsure, uncomfortable and probably harmless. Immediately after that, in the last seven bars, Schubert unexpectedly uses D major, as if to show the public that “the Death” has no bad intentions. These harmonic patterns and the lack of melody movement in the second stanza can only characterize “the Death” voice as supernatural and really contrasting to the active voice part in the first stanza. (Bandura-Skoda, Branscombe, 1982, 153)

As already said above, the song is based on the poem, which is the reason for some absolutely striking similarities between the two of them. For example, Schubert clearly differentiates the two stanzas and the two dialogue partners by various terms such as the dynamics and declamatory gestures. The piano dynamic, crescendo and diminuendo in the first part of the song correspond to the short and disjunct phrases in “the Maiden” part of the poem. Likewise, the pianissimo dynamic in the second part of the song is in harmony with the long and conjunct phrases in “the Death” part of the poem (Bandura-Skoda, Branscombe, 1982, 150).

However, an interesting fact is that Schubert does not use two different voices for the two stanzas. This perhaps was his way of making the dramatic dialogue between “the Maiden” and “the Death” even more effective. In fact, Schubert uses a material which was previously written by him quite often. For example, the famous piano quintet in A major D. 667 is based on the song “the Trout” D. 550. Similarly, “the Wanderer” D. 493 supplies with material the C major fantasy D. 760. As it was already mentioned above, the String Quartet D. 810 “The Death and the Maiden” is based on the song D. 531. More precisely, the second movement of the string quartet, which consists of one main theme and five variations, is completely based on that song. The main theme can be divided into three parts: A, B and C.

Example 3 – Comparison of the first eight bars of the second movement of the string quartet (above) and the song (below) The A section, which is shown on example three above, is almost directly taken from the song. Afterwards, between bars nine and sixteen, which is section B, the music is getting livelier and vivid, just to correspond perfectly to “the Maiden’s” feelings. The C section of the main theme, between bars seventeen and twenty-four, is again calm exactly as “the Death” in the Claudius’s poem is. The first twenty-four bars are probably the most beautiful and angelic, yet incredibly simple, in the Romantic era. However, the simplicity of the whole passage is what makes it so genuine. For example, the note G is repeated thirteen times between bars seventeen and twenty-four in the part of the first violin, while the note B is repeated fourteen times in the viola part. Anyhow, the feature which makes these bars sound so perfect is the harmony pattern which is shown on example four.

Example 4 – Harmonic analysis of bars seventeen to twenty four of the second movement of the string quartet The first variation starts in bar twenty-five. Basically, the harmony pattern is the same to the one in the original theme. This time, however, the second violin and the viola provide the harmony which was previously played by the whole quartet. The inner-voices sustain the key feature in this variation in triplets throughout. The cello is providing the foundation of the whole passage by playing strong quaver pizzicato notes.

The first violin part is really interesting in this variation, because it has very much a supporting role, something unusual, especially at the beginning of a piece. The notes played are part of the chord played by the rest of the group. This first of five variations is somehow more tensed and emotional compare to the original theme in the movement. This is probably to underline “the Maiden” fright when she tries to escape “the Death” at the beginning of the poem. In the second variation, there is a lead singing part – the cello. It is interesting to see how this melody corresponds to the original theme, which can be seen on example five.

Example 5 – Comparison between the cello part in the 2nd variation (above) and the original theme (underneath) The second violin provides a second voice, which supports the main tune. It is a unique accompaniment because of its multitasking. The dotted quavers form the supporting voice which was mentioned above, while the semi-quavers complete the first violin and the viola accompaniment roles, as it can be seen on example six.

Example 6 – The unique, multitasking second violin part in the second variation. The role of the viola throughout this variation is to provide a strong base part. Schubert achieved that with very simple but incredibly effective rhythm – quaver, quaver rest and two quavers. This pattern repeats for twenty-four bars. The first violin part has an ornamental function again, likewise in the first variation.

It can be said, that the harmonic patterns remains similar to these at the beginning of the piece, however, there are simply more notes played in this variation which is the reason for the more tensed and excited feelings. The third variation is an absolute shock for the listener. It is a kind of culmination of the feelings which have been building up so far in the movement. This variation is unlike any of the rest in terms of role playing of the four instruments. The key feature in the third variation is the rhythm which is presented mainly by the second violin and the viola, while still reminiscing about the main theme with all the quavers, as example seven shows.

Example 7 – Strong rhythmic second violin and viola parts, which still reminisce about the main theme. The first violin and the cello have a similar job of playing big three-part chords later on, which create additional tension in the music. There is an interesting fact that the original theme and the previous two variations finished in the key of G major. In the third one, however, all four instruments resolve to a single G note. The composer surprises the listener again with the fourth variation. Having listened to the previous really tensed and exciting variation, Schubert introduces very light and beautiful music in G major. A similarity to the main theme has been found in this variation, as shown on example eight.

Example 8 – Similar material in the fourth variation and the main theme. The first violin is playing an accompanying role again in this variation, but this time, so lyrical and smooth, that it can be described as a counter-melody. The last part of this variation is in C major, which is the first significant change of tonality so far in the movement. By going back to the more relaxed music in this variation, the composer hides the return to the home key of G minor perfectly, as he prepares the listener for the end of the movement. In this final fifth variation, the second violin and the viola play a version of the main theme which has been played in the first variation, but this time much more lyrically. Schubert uses some voice exchange between the two of them as well. This time the cello part has the job of providing the base. It is a very simple ostinato movement, but again, incredibly effective for the listener as example nine shows below.

Example 9 – The ostinato movement of the cello in the last variation The first violin has a very limited part. Starts off with a very long G note, just to continue with a passage, which strongly emphasizes the G minor chord as shown on example ten.

Example 10 – The first violin line at the beginning of the fifth variation

Of particular interest is the note of the cello in bar one-hundred and thirty which is shown on example eleven. There, the cello reaches the lowest note of the whole piece. This note is greatly emotional for the listener, because this is the point where all the tension and excitement, which has been building up throughout the movement, finally resolves.

Example 11 – Bar 130, where the cello reaches the lowest note in the piece The coda of this movement starts in bar one-hundred and forty-four. Schubert uses the material from sections B and C of the original theme. This can be seen in the parts of the second violin, viola and cello while the first violin part is more variative and ornamental then any of the other instruments. It is an interesting fact, that Schubert finishes this movement the same way he finishes the song, with a restatement of the introduction but this time in a major key.

Having written more than six-hundred songs, Franz Schubert has a huge contribution to the developing of this genre. His creativeness as a song composer, of course pervade some of his instrumental music as well. It is very difficult to reproduce in great detail what the composer had in mind about his vocal and instrumental works, in order to the fact that the singing techniques and the instruments some two-hundred years ago were so different to what they are nowadays. An interesting fact is the use of slurs in Schubert’s instrumental music. He is the composer who has rarely written a slur which is longer than a string player could manage.

The slurs in a string player part correspond to the breaths a singer would take. This proves that even when composing pieces for a string quartet or even a symphony, Schubert uses his vocal techniques all the time. (Montgomery, 2003, 11) Unlike the classical string quartets, the Schubert’s works can be described as “genuine” according to the violinist Louis Spohr. This means that there is no one leading part, as it used to be during the Classical era, but all four parts are equally important. Therefore, the first violin should not aim to distinguish himself above the other three players by style of delivery or strength of tone. (Montgomery, 2003, pp.12-13)

In conclusion, the String Quartet in D minor, D. 810 is one of the greatest chamber music pieces in the classical repertoire nowadays. After listening to such music, the genius of Franz Schubert cannot be questioned in any way. There is a striking fact that, this piece was not published while the composer was still alive. Anyhow, this essay analysed the poem “Der Tod und das Madchen” by Mathias Claudius, the song “The Death and The Maiden” D. 531 and the second movement of the string quartet D. 810 by Franz Schubert, by exploring mainly harmony patterns and instrumental voice leading.

The strong link between the song and each of the variations from the second movement of the string quartet with the poem by Mathias Claudius has been explained. Schubert himself, in an often-cited letter, refers to the String Quartet in A minor, D. 804 and the D. 810 in D minor as well as the Octet D. 803, in a specific context: “… I intend to pave my way towards grand symphony in that manner …” (Bandura-Skoda, 1982, 171). There can be no doubt that the D minor Quartet is really experimental and adventurous, which can easily be in the dimensions of the symphonic format in terms of cyclical form and expressive content.


1. Bandura-Skoda, E. & Branscombe P. (eds.) (1982) ‘Schubert Studies: Problems of style and chronology’. Cambridge: University Press. pp. 1-25, 143-173, 327-347. 2. Brown, C. (2010) ‘Performing 19th- century chamber music: the yawning chasm between contemporary practice and historical evidence’. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 3. Montgomery, D. (2003) ‘Franz Schubert’s Music in Performance. Compositional Ideals, Notational Intent, Historical Realities, Pedagogical Foundations’. New York: Pedagogical Press. pp. 65-173. 4. Somervell, A. (1927) ‘Schubert: Quartet in D minor and Octet’. London: Humphrey Milford: Oxford University Press. pp. 5-30. 5. Rink, J. (ed.) (2002) ‘Musical Performance’, A Guide to Understanding. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


1. Schubert, F. String Quartets Nos. 13 and 14, “Death and the Maiden” (Alban Berg Quartet) EMI Classics, Compact disc, 0077774733359. 2. Schubert, F. String Quartet Nos. 10 and 14, “Death and the Maiden” (Britten Quartet) EMI Classics, Compact disc, 0724357327350.

Music Scores:

1. Schubert, F., 1981, String Quartet in d minor: ‘Death and the Maiden’ D. 810, Eulenberg Edition, Leipzig. Music Score. 2. Schubert, F., 1989, String Quartet: ‘Death and the Maiden’ D. 810, Barrenreiter Edition, Kessel. Music Score.

1. Claudius, Matthias. “Der Tod und das Mädchen / Death and the Maiden.” Trans. Emily Ezust. The Lied and Art Song Texts Pages: Texts and Translations to Lieder (2007): <http://www.recmusic.org/lieder>.

Cite this page

“The Death and the Maiden” D. 810 by Franz Schubert. (2016, Nov 22). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/the-death-and-the-maiden-d-810-by-franz-schubert-essay

“The Death and the Maiden” D. 810 by Franz Schubert

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