Tragic play: music in the face of death
Franz Schubert, was, according to Franz Liszt, the most poetic musician who ever lived. Schubert’s melodies and harmonies capture feeling as it truly is, free from sentimental exaggeration, with a simplicity that lifts us up at the very moment we face the darkest loss.
The Endellion Quartet will begin their performance with a short fragment that Schubert wrote in 1820, as he embarked on what we now call his mature phase of composition. Quartettsatz D 703 is a string quartet he started at 23 and never finished. Brahms edited and published it after Schubert died of syphilis in 1828 – aged just 31.
The Endellion will also play Quartet 13 and 14. Astonishingly, Schubert wrote these two masterpieces of the chamber music repertoire in two months, in 1824. Both are imbued with his knowledge of impending death and the likelihood of insanity from the final stage of syphilis. Yet this knowledge also magnified his sensitivity to life. Knowing his genius would not have the chance to flower over decades, he crammed his astonishing body of mature work into a few years.
Both pieces are sublime, but they could not be more different. The exquisite, delicately haunting Quartet 13 in A Minor has all the lyric resonance of Schubert’s Lieder, and reprises music from his music for a play, Rosamunde, while Quartet 14 in D Minor, known as Death and the Maiden, has the energy of a tornado and has inspired nearly two centuries of painting and drama. These quartets are a passionate testament to the human capacity for celebrating, in the face of death, the blaze, tenderness and also the sweetness of life.
Between the musical performances, Ruth Padel will read her new sequence of poems on Schubert.
The Endellion String Quartet, with Andrew Watkinson and Ralph de Souza on violin, Garfield Jackson on viola and David Waterman on cello, is ‘arguably the finest quartet in Britain, playing with poise, true intonation, excellent balance and beautiful tone’ (New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians). The quartet was formed in 1979 and named after St Endellion in Cornwall. They have been ‘Quartet in Residence’ at Cambridge University since 1992, and continue to perform globally.
Ruth Padel is an award winning poet, and Reader in Poetry at King’s. She has published nine poetry collections and several much-loved books on reading contemporary poetry. Her new collection Tidings – A Christmas Journey, will come out in November from Chatto & Windus.