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The Festival in Residence: Windsor

June 12 @ 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm

Festival in Residence: Windsor

Wednesday, June 12 | 7:00 p.m.

The Capitol Theatre, Windsor
Sponsored by The Morris & Beverly Baker Foundation

Artists| Shai Wosner, Hesper Quartet

SCHUBERT String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810, “Death and the Maiden”
ELGAR Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 84

*Please contact The Capitol Theatre at 519-973-1238 or visit capitoltheatrewindsor.ca for ticket information.

PROGRAM NOTES | © Ty Bouque 2024

Schubert first set Matthias Claudius’ short poem Der Tod und das Mädschen (“Death and the Maiden”) in 1817, in a version for voice and piano. Seven years later—having contracted terminal syphilis in the interim and facing for the first time his own mortality—the 27-year-old pilfered his piano part for a new string quartet, transforming the razor-thin tension of that earlier gallows march into the second of four movements. As the name suggests, his new quartet grapples with the delirious melancholy that accompanies the promise of death. It throws itself headlong towards the specter of bodily destruction, but for all the death-related music in the classical canon, Schubert’s stands out by refusing to be sad. It is a weighty quartet, certainly, and at times almost unbearably terse, but never unremittingly depressive. Death and the Maiden is, first and foremost, strange. What is often chalked up to syphilitic madness in Schubert’s late work—its extremity, its violent tenor, the almost sadistic levels of play and invention that characterize its transformation of materials, and his frequent disregard for symmetry and regulation— is, I think, better contextualized by a puzzling moment in the Claudius text that nearly stops the poem in its tracks. Take a look at what Death calls the Maiden when he first speaks to her:

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! [Gebild]
I am a friend, and come not to punish.
Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,
Softly shall you sleep in my arms!

Strange, no? Of all the names Death might give to a young woman, he calls her form: “you beautiful and tender form.” The sudden shift to figural abstraction, in a conversation of intimacy and assurance no less, is both troubling and irresistible. It seems to suggest that innocent beauty becomes something Other when proximal to Death. Something formal happens when the threat of extinguishment reaches a steady hand towards that which is not yet corrupted by the world. Tonight’s program asks that question: What becomes of Beauty when Death meets it?

The Romantic ideal of beauty—one to which Schubert absolutely ascribed—is celestial purity assembled through truth: “Truth is beauty, beauty truth,” Keats was writing at the same time. Schubert, meanwhile, is attempting to write a “beautiful truth” of what is first and foremost impure: death by infection, physical corruption, terminability, corporeal ruin. But, still bound by the aesthetic obligations of nineteenth-century Romanticism, he cannot kill beauty, at least not yet. Death the Destroyer—if it wants to be received as truth (as it certainly was for Schubert)—must paradoxically become beauty, must take beauty as a shape for itself, must make beauty a form to be filled.

So Death—that which does harm to living forms—turns around to find harm done to it by Beauty. Death is forced to twist itself into elastic and bulbous knots in an effort to maintain proper aesthetic codes: it cannot adequately articulate the brutality of the thing it wants to say. At the same time, the presence of something so unwieldy as Death in a system of highly controlled articulation warps the Beautiful into something dented, fraught, screaming while it smiles.This interior tension between violence— what is being said—and purity—how it is being said—lends Death and the Maiden its defining balletic grotesquerie: Beauty is indeed the form that Death must take, and both become so strange for that cooperation.

The French novelist Hervé Guibert, writing The Compassion Protocol on the brink of his own death from illness (AIDS) in 1993, described something of the same alienating flight into polarity: “I have the feeling I’ve created a work both barbarous and delicate.” Even as Schubert’s final movement whirls ever faster towards its climax, the brutality of terminal acceleration never outpaces the sheer eloquence of its form.
It stays this side of madness but only barely, lending the work a twisted and surreal viscerality, at once cruel and cruelly gorgeous.

In Elgar’s Piano Quintet, however, that same notion of conflating death with beauty can be glimpsed not in the music itself but rather by locating the work in aesthetic history writ large. It is 1918. Music is in the midst of its most serious social upheaval in a century, but Edward Elgar, aged patriarch in the English musical landscape, is nowhere to be found. He has fled progressive London for the seclusion of a little hamlet called Fittleworth in West Sussex, a village of just 900 with a church, a school, and a single pub. Away from the city, he completes the final four works of his major output: the Violin Sonata, the String Quartet in E, the Cello Concerto, and the Piano Quintet.

From our vantage point in time, this late work is Elgar in marked retreat. Cast in an unapologetically sentimental vocabulary at a time when the dawning consensus among musical elite was that tonality’s universality and comfort had become untenable, it is an old guard retrenchment that aligns its creator firmly with the past. Of these four major works, however, the Piano Quintet is conspicuous for not totally beginning there. The long first movement warps and bends with uncanny fluidity, juxtaposing eerie, almost modernist sparsity with high-output vigor and dance. (His wife Alice would suggest in her letters that the thicket of barren, scraggly trees near their cottage was the primary inspiration for the movement’s sinuousness.) Teetering between nostalgia and nervousness, we open on an internal battle whose victor is not immediately clear: we can hear Elgar almost think about a more unsettled future.

But by the end of the first, and with each successive movement—the second is a wistful pastoral; the third, a long wind-up to exuberance—the Quintet shrinks further from the promise of any change. The final cadence, jubilant and measured, is the long-awaited sigh of a recusal: Elgar will go no further, and ends by affirming the same values his music has always upheld. And so the Quintet feels, especially now, like it floats outside of time. It has a kind of anachronistic estrangement, insisting on a guarantee of beauty that, deep down, it knows is only temporary. This is perhaps what makes the work rather emotional now: its naïveté bespeaks a deep desire for a world no longer possible. It grieves what will inevitably be lost by holding fast to it until the last possible second.

Though tonight’s concert will proceed chronologically, the pair feel curiously out of order. Schubert, seeing death on the horizon, throws himself towards it; Elgar, seeing the same, recoils. For the century dividing them, Death and the Maiden remains the more prophetic of the pair, heraldic in its uncompromising vision of beautiful horror.

© Ty Bouque 2024


June 12
7:00 pm - 9:00 pm
Event Category:


Capitol Theatre and Arts Centre
121 University Ave W
Windsor, Ontario N9A 5P4 Canada
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519-973-1238 ext. 2
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Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival
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