String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, the so-called “Death and the Maiden” quartet, is Schubert’s grand attempt at matching the compositional might of Beethoven. A dramatic minor opening, in unison, marked fortissimo, giving way to a persistent triplet theme. If that sounds familiar, that is exactly what Schubert had in mind, as it’s clearly evocative of the famous opening of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. It seems to cry out “Listen to this, I can write serious music too, so you had better pay attention.”
As is so often the case with the canonical “great composers,” so much history has been mythicized and attributed to over simplified notions of divine inspiration. There are numerous accounts attributing Schubert’s sudden shift in compositional direction to his hospitalization from syphilis in 1823. But what is less discussed is the positive inspiration Schubert had from a violinist, Ignaz Schuppanzigh, who as founder of the renowned Schuppanzigh quartet had premiered many of Beethoven’s late works in the genre.
Schuppanzigh returned to Vienna in April 1823, after a seven-year absence, and almost immediately founded a chamber music series in the city. For Schubert, this timing proved fortuitous. We know that Schubert attended these chamber concerts in 1823, as he wrote to Schuppanzigh to say he was “Always in attendance”—though this was probably more metaphorical. Either way, it was Schuppanzigh’s series that gave Schubert the catalyst to realise his Beethovianian dream of writing hard core chamber music. It must have come as a huge blow to Schubert, then, when he presented his “Death and the Maiden Quartet” to Schuppanzigh, only to be told to “Stick to writing songs.” Imagine; not only being overshadowed by your hero, but being told that you are no good at even replicating him?
There was to be no fairy-tale redemption for Schubert, at least not in his own lifetime; he died four years later at the age of 31 with the music outside of his songs finding little popularity, save for a small group of friends and admirers. It was not until the likes of Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms helped establish Schubert’s reputation posthumously, finding a merit in his chamber music that Schuppanzigh failed to see.