Swan Songs


The Maiden: Stay away! Oh, stay away! Go, fierce Death! I am still young, please go! And do not touch me.

Death: Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender vision! I am a friend, and come not to hurt you. Be of good cheer! I am not cruel. You will sleep softly in my arms!

(Poem by Matthias Claudius. Music by Franz Schubert)


It’s the big question, isn’t it? How we will respond when the Grim Reaper crosses our threshold and reaches out with his icy hand. I’ll be discussing that very question on the preconcert lecture of the Minetti String Quartet’s performance on March 1 of an intriguing program comprising the final quartets by Mozart and Mendelssohn, and Schubert’s monumental “Death and the Maiden.” (I had always thought that was among Schubert’s final works, but more recent scholarships suggests he composed it a few years before his demise at the age of thirty-one.)


Maybe I’m being overly dramatic. Few people know the hour of their demise in advance, and certainly Mozart still had some time to go after his Quartet in B-flat, K589. And, there’s something strange contemplating the swan songs of these three genius composers when none of them made it to the age of thirty-nine. Yet, when writing these quartets they were in fairly dire physical, emotional, (and always for Mozart,financial) straits, and thoughts of death must have crossed their mind even at their tender ages. Composers have often resorted to chamber music in their final days, either finding comfort in the intimacy of the genre or perhaps, as in Beethoven’s last quartets, disregarding convention for another spiritual realm entirely. What’s curious in this program is that neither Mendelssohn nor Mozart seem to have chosen those options.

What’s strikingly in common among the three compositions of this program is the strict adherence to what by that time had become traditional four movement quartet form; and further, within those movements, the absence of anything structurally innovative (again, unlike Beethoven). The first movements are conventional sonata-allegro form. The minuets (or scherzos) and the slow movements are all totally by the book.


Mozart’s death mask

What’s of much more interest to the composers is the content, using standard form as the structurally sturdy, architectural frame for their creativity. The texture of Mozart’s K589 is unusually light and spare; more often than not only two or three musicians are playing. It’s almost as if he’s saying he could no longer care less about conventional frippery. He’s not out to please audiences as much as satisfying his own personal standards; to write what’s essential–nothing more, nothing less–and if you don’t like it, well that’s just too bad. (That being said, he did include an extended cello solo in the Larghetto, probably in the hopes–unfulfilled–of obtaining a commission from Frederick Wilhelm II, an enthusiastic amateur cellist.) One particularly noteworthy feature of this quartet is the Trio section of the Minuet. Usually given scant attention by composers, this Trio section takes on a life of its own–it’s almost a mini-Magic Flute.


Mendelssohn’s death mask


If there was a greater child genius than Mozart, it was Felix Mendelssohn. By his mid-teens he had a consummate grasp of his craft and had already produced masterpieces like the Octet and some of the Incidental Music to A Midsummer’s Night Dream.  In a way, that early technical precocity may have led to some stagnation as a creative artist in later compositions, where at times he seemed to repeatedly tread over trails he had already blazed. It reminds me of a quote by Berlioz’s comment about the young Camille Saint-Saens, another child genius. “He knows everything, but suffers from a lack of inexperience.”

Just before the F Minor Quartet, Mendelssohn’s beloved sister, Fanny, died suddenly and unexpectedly, and was himself was exhausted and in very poor health. He made no secret that the quartet was an expression of his grief and anguish. The intensity of F Minor, the jagged and accented dynamics, the turbulent under layers of 16th notes, the syncopated rhythms, the melodies which start and then seem to disintegrate, are all testament to his inner turmoil. Yet for all that, Mendelssohn seems unable to break free of the craft. The deeper tragedy here may be that in this, his final effort to make his most personal statement, he was constrained by the very gifts that had propelled him to greatness.


Schubert’s death mask


Schubert’s song, “Death and the Maiden,” upon which the quartet is based, is less than three minutes long. In the quartet, Death grabs you around the throat for the better part of an hour and rarely loosens his grip. For it to be an appropriately convincing performance, the musicians and audience have to be physically and emotionally exhausted by the end. The emotional core of the quartet is the second movement Andante con moto, a set of variations taken from the  introduction and second stanza of the song, a chillingly stately  cortege. The variations go far beyond the typical technique of simply providing contrasts in color, texture, and ornamentation of the theme. Here, each variation examines a different response to Death’s arrival, plumbing the depths of the soul in musical tones. And, like in the song, there is no definite resolution. Is Death cruel or is he, as he insists, here to comfort? We can guess, but we don’t ever know for sure how the Maiden–or Mozart or Mendelssohn for that matter–responds to Death’s invitation.

PS I’ve written a novel inspired by “Death and the Maiden.” Coincidentally, it’s called “Death and the Maiden.” For all my other books and audio books, please visit my Writing page.



3 thoughts on “Swan Songs

  1. frances dearman

    Timely. Thank you for this, Jerry. And a mindful way to approach Lent. Best wishes for the concert March 1st.

    Timely because a charming red headed rabble rousing matron of my congregation was with us this morning, taking advantage of her hiatus between rounds of chemotherapy to attend her church. She may see another Christmas. Or not. Her swan song approaches….

    But today she had music and fellowship, praise, reflection, and commission.

    In appreciation, Fran in Leamington Ontario

    Interim Minister the Rev. Fran Dearman serving the Unitarian Universalist Church of Olinda, Essex County Ontario I read e-mail at random intervals; if your message is time sensitive, please telephone: home study land line: 519.398.8436 (home study and voice mail) dire emergency cell phone: 1.778.835.8616 (cell, no voice mail) ________________________________________


  2. Mac Cheever

    A favorite cartoon has the grim reaper facing an old lady at her front door. Her balloon says, ‘Deaf? Yes, I’m a bit deaf; you’ll have to speak up.’ His says, ‘ This is going to be harder than I thought’.



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