Schubert's Lieder

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Among the many lieder composed in the 19th century, Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” was composed in February 1817 identifying two characters; Death and the Maiden, exemplifying a different concept on the musical theme of seductive death. Set to text of lyricist Matthias Claudius who did not merely profess simplicity like the other poets, Schubert introduces a different perspective to the use of music in the 19th century. Death and the Maiden can be clearly split into three sections with distinct feelings. Firstly, a slow funereal introduction with the use of dense chords played in the bass register to illicit a mood of sorrow in the key of D minor played by the piano features dactylic rhythm (long note played followed by two short notes – minim and two crotchets in song), which is often associated to funerals or a person’s impending death. D minor which “sounds melancholy, gently sorrowing” (Steblin, 2002) was Schubert’s key-symbol of death. Though there are no words by Death in the introduction, it can be seen as a shadow of death appearing into the picture. Next, the fearful Maiden sings in a fast paced agitated tone, trying to fight, resist and plead against death to “pass her by”. The melodic line seems to go up the D minor scale from A to E-flat, along with the quickened piano accompaniment which builds up the frightened atmosphere as well. This increase in pace allows us to sense the panic that the Maiden was feeling as Death approaches her. Towards the end of this section, the mood changes slightly with the use of dactylic rhythm which will be discussed in the essay. Lastly, Death comes in a soothing and calm tone reassuring the Maiden that he is a “friend”, as if persuading and convincing the maiden that death is the best solution to her life. (Branscombe, 1982) The song ends in a recapitulation of the introduction but in the parallel D major key. This gives a different perspective and contrasted to death which people of that age thought it would be. Death is usually portrayed as a scary image (memento mori – often represented as a human skeleton), something to be fearful of. Memento mori reminded one of the late Middle Ages to "remember thy death." However Schubert uses the ombra style on his treatment on the theme of death which was at that time a favourite subject of classical and romantic poetry which exhibits characteristics associated with death. Operas which had such styles were popular at that time. Death is shown as a comforter, a symbol of sleep which was sharp contrast from the medieval image of death, introduced in the enlightened age. This was used by many composers and poets as it was explored deeply as people were curious in wanting to understand death, what lies beyond this life on earth and religious faiths have stepped in and tried to reason to the people what the bible said about death. The harmonic contour of Schubert’s lieds breaks away from the “straight-forward” classical style of dominant and tonic, resolution and circle of fifths on its musical structure, stepping beyond Classical boundaries. Contrasting harmonies, rhythmic patterns and dynamics sang by Death and the Maiden can be distinctively recognised, thus allowing us to identify the differences between the two dialogues. One of which is the use of dactylic rhythm which Schubert frequently uses in his compositions. The dactylic rhythmic pattern used in this lied only appears in the parts where death speaks. It becomes a familiar rhythm that repeats in the second portion of the lied. As seen in this lied, it is through the use of this rhythm (long-short-short) that allows us to identify the “sound of death” though without words or intonation of the voice that would explain the reason behind the work. On the other hand, the melody of the maiden comes in at bar 9 on an anacrusis with the piano accompaniment playing syncopated chords of quavers alternating in the left and right hand.The rhythm is played “somewhat quicker” as indicated...
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