Digital Playbill

Death and the Maiden

Table of Contents
Wolf | Schubert
Premiering October 17, 2020
Music Director: Eric Garcia


Hugo Wolf
(1860 – 1903)
Italian Serenade

Franz Schubert
(1797 – 1828)
String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, op. 77, D. 810 “Death and the Maiden”
I. Allegro
II. Andante con moto
III. Scherzo. Allegro molto – Trio
IV. Presto – Prestissimo


Holly Lawrence, Violin

no person with lauren-anderson
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Dawn Douthit, Violin
sponsored by Vicki Kreimeyer

Molly McCallum, Violin
Sponsored by Ann Peterson

Jennifer Drake, Viola
Sponsored by Kathy Peter

Heidi Nagel, Cello
Sponsored by thomas j. katsilometes & katherine A. Mathews

Holly Lawrence

no person with lauren-anderson
no person with aurora-torres
no person with doug-lawrence
Dawn Douthit

Molly McCallum

Jennifer Drake

Heidi Nagel


Education and
Program Notes
Death and the Maiden

Hugo Wolf / March 13. 1860 – February 22, 1903

Italian Serenade

Wolf was a prolific songwriter with more than 350 art songs (lieder) to his credit. Many critics put him in the same exclusive circle with Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms, some even as the first among equals

Along the way, he declared his allegiance to Richard Wagner’s “New School of Music”. Wolf’s fealty to Wagner’s “progressive” cabal necessarily meant that he rejected Brahms' competing “conservative” school which drew its essence from the masters of the past. The old garde which Wolf disdained championed absolute non-programmatic music based on well-established classical forms, like the rondo. A rondo relies on a repeating central theme and contrasting intervening episodes.

To underscore his bona fides as a progressive Wagnerite, Wolf openly savaged Brahms' “reactionary style". Turned critic, Wolf wrote about Brahms’ First Piano Concerto that “whoever can swallow it with relish may look forward with equanimity to a famine.”

Italian Serenade for string quartet is one of Wolf’s few instrumental pieces. True to his vocal moorings, it is song-like and implies a program or a narrative although he never said what it might be. The main hop-skip-and-a-jump theme is lively and energetic, almost saucy. Overall, the piece radiates Italianate effervescence.

Now here’s the rub. The man who derided classical forms uses one, the rondo, to structure and to lend musical coherence to this piece. Its recurring opening theme is interrupted by contrasting discursive episodes followed by a return of the main theme in new musical garb. Call it “rondo light”. What’s the point? Music without some kind of form (or words) is just noise. But a form cannot turn noise into music, only a genius can perform that miracle. Welcome to Wolf.

Written by the Honorable Stephen S. Trott

Franz Schubert / January 31, 1797 – November 19, 1828

Death and the Maiden

This piece may be one of the most analyzed, indeed psychoanalyzed, in the repertoire. One influential scholar called it “a drama of the vulnerable individual in the clutches of destiny,” adding that it is “filled with desperation” and “reminiscent of the casting out of Eden.” He says that at the end of the first movement “we are plunged into an abyss, cold and distant, surrounded by spectral cries.” Pretty serious stuff, but is it true? A pile of circumstances suggests that it is.

First, Schubert composed it in March of 1824, three years after he contracted a fatal case of syphilis which he knew would prematurely end his life. And it did when he was only 31 years old. We know his state of mind while writing this piece from a letter he wrote at the end of March to a friend, “I feel myself to be the most unfortunate, the most miserable being in the world. Think of a man whose health will never be right again, and who from despair over the fact makes it worse instead of better. Imagine a man whose most brilliant hopes have perished. … My peace is gone, my heart is heavy, I find it never, nevermore. … So I might sing every day, since each night when I go to sleep, I hope never again to wake, and each morning reminds me of the misery of yesterday.”

Another telling clue appears in the second movement, a funereal theme with five variations. Schubert borrowed this theme from a song he had previously written in 1817 based on a poem entitled Death and The Maiden. In the poem and in Schubert’s song, Death says to the distressed maiden, “Give me your hand, you fair and tender creature! I am a friend and do not come to punish. Be of good courage! I am not cruel, you shall sleep softly in my arms!” Does Death speak the truth? Is Death a welcome friend, or is it a ghastly seduction? This burning question reminds us of Prince Hamlet’s existential quandary questioning the value of life: “To be or not to be, that is the question.”

The final clue is in the tension-filled music itself. It begins with Beethoven-like exclamations, suggesting something consequential is about to happen. This quartet is manifestly not just casual entertainment. But it is not all storm and stress either. It contains some wonderful Schubertian lyrical moments.

Schubert himself left no indications of his purpose in writing it. The name by which it is now known, Death and The Maiden, wasn’t his. It was attached to the music after his death, probably as a marketing ploy.

Whatever Schubert had in mind, this quartet is spectacular music demanding the best of anyone who tackles it. The quicksilver finale is a tarantella, a folk dance that supposedly wards off the effects of a venomous spider bite. It features several stormy episodes and concludes with a breathtaking sprint to the end. Not surprisingly, this masterpiece has become a challenging staple of the string quartet repertoire.

Written by the Honorable Stephen S. Trott

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