If you’re like me, you like to watch your TV shows with the subtitles on, even though you are in no way hearing impaired. This may be because:
-you are eating chips and cannot hear a word they are saying
-someone in your residence is talking loudly on the phone
-someone in you household goes to bed early and you can’t turn up the volume
-entertainment value (mainly this)
If you pay attention to the subtitles, you may have come across interesting musical subtitles such as:
[MUFFLED RAP MUSIC PLAYS IN THE DISTANCE]
[OMINOUS MUSIC PLAYING]
or more specific ones such as:
[SCHUBERT’S AVE MARIA PLAYING]
(I don’t really understand how this is helpful if you can’t hear)
|You know something bad is about to happen when ominous music plays (video from Onion News Network via youtube.com)
When you see the caption (or hear the music) [OMINOUS MUSIC PLAYS] you know something bad is about to happen. The piece we’re gonna look at today falls into the ominous classical music category, and the bad thing about to happen is death. Seriously, when I listen to this it feels like something bad is about to happen, it’s that convincing (this can be especially ominous when you are driving at high speeds on freeways). This piece is Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, known as Death and the Maiden (you can probably already tell what’s gonna happen to the maiden). But first, here’s a little bit about where the name of the piece comes from, and the foreboding circumstances in Schubert’s life when he wrote the piece.
Schubert’s piece gets its name from a song he wrote called Der Tod und das Mädchen, which he uses in the second movement of the string quartet. The string quartet consists of 4 movements, reaching a climax of ominous-ness in the last movement. From beginning it’s like “prepare to meet your fate”, because the end is coming and it’s inevitable. And who better to write this music than Schubert, who at that point in his life had nothing going for him, and he knew he was dying. His recently composed music hadn’t been well received, and he was dying of syphilis.
Schubert was one of those composers who composed on the borderline of two eras: the Classical Period and the Romantic Period. He was composing at the same time as Beethoven, and if this next fact isn’t foreboding I don’t know what is:
He was a huge fan of Beethoven and took his death really hard. Schubert died a year later at the age of 31.
The song on which the second movement is about a young maiden facing death, a subject he could relate with being also young himself and facing the end. Schubert set a poem to music for the original song. In the poem, the maiden is not ready, but death says she will be OK when it comes (kind of a dark emo piece):
- 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!
The vocal range for the song is very low (lower than I can sing) which brings out the foreboding mood even more (and so does the fact that it’s in German):
So Schubert’s String Quartet is basically the 19th century classical version of death metal:
This may be hard to take in all at once. Sometimes when I listen to a longer piece for the first time I skip around and listen to a couple minutes of each movement. So here is a brief guide to each of the movements:
00:04- You can already tell something bad is about to happen. After the loud mwuhaha opening, quiet ominous music plays, then it returns to the faster ominous music. This is kind of an introduction IMO to the story of the maiden meeting her fate, conveying the moods that are about to occur. This movement sets up the ominous mood for the listener.
11:32- (it takes talent to play in the dark) This is a slower movement that is more sad (like a funeral) because the young maiden is facing her fate. It returns back to the ominous mood at 16:31, that may be when death comes to visit and she is not ready. It kind of switches back and forth between peaceful parts and ominous/evil parts, IMO depicting the conflict between the maiden and her impending death, and her coming to peace with it at the end. My favorite movement, so many moods conveyed in this section.
22:14- The ominous music continues in the style of a dark scherzo, with peaceful sections throughout
25:25- A roller-coaster ride until the finish. About a minute from the end it speeds up to the finale, when the end comes and it comes suddenly and violently.
Next week, we will look at another ominous piece (this one for organ).