Writing sample by Aaron Grad.
© 2012 Aaron Grad. All rights reserved.

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String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, D. 810 (“Death and the Maiden”)
FRANZ SCHUBERT (b. 1797 - d. 1828)

Images from a Closed Ward
MICHAEL HERSCH (b. 1971)

Tonight’s program features two composers whose works often navigate dark facets of human existence. Franz Schubert and Michael Hersch, separated by nearly 150 years, might seem to have little in common judging by the surface features of their compositions. What they do share are the qualities of urgency and fearlessness that allow their works to penetrate deep into difficult, at times terrifying, aspects of life: grief, loss, insanity and death. Through different means, they both express profound and sometimes uncomfortable truths about life’s struggles.

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As of 1817, Franz Schubert’s music had not been published, mentioned in a newspaper, or performed publicly in Vienna a single time, even though he had already composed some 300 songs (half of his lifetime output) and a large body of orchestral and chamber music. One of Schubert’s most famous songs, Death and the Maiden, dates from 1817; it is a haunting and prescient work from a 20-year-old composer who, it turned out, had little more than a decade left to live. Setting a text by Matthias Claudius, the song’s first stanza comes from the perspective of the maiden, who pleads for Death to pass her by in impassioned D-minor music. The response is the voice of Death himself, who takes the maiden’s hand through a smooth and static D-major melody.

Publications of his songs helped Schubert gain traction as a composer. It was during this period however, some time in 1822 or early 1823, that many speculate Schubert contracted syphilis, ultimately dying of the infection in 1828. (Others suspect that what took his life was Typhoid fever.) If Schubert was truly infected with syphilis when he returned to his earlier song Death and the Maiden in 1824 as the inspiration for a string quartet, he must have known on some level that his own death was all too near.

Schubert had previously incorporated songs into instrumental works; one familiar example is the “Trout” Quintet, with a set of variations on the bubbling melody and accompaniment of another 1817 song, The Trout. With the “Death and the Maiden”
Quartet, Schubert’s instrumental treatment goes beyond a simple theme and variations. In the opening Allegro movement, the intense descending motive at the beginning recalls the tailing end of the maiden’s verse from the song, when she awaits Death’s answer. By echoing that pregnant moment and dwelling in it for an entire movement, the music hovers in that harrowing interval before Death responds.

A direct quotation of the song comes in the second movement, a brooding set of variations. The quartet borrows only a somber chorale from the portion of the song associated with Death, leaving aside the maiden’s more urgent plea. The third movement reframes another element of the song: the tension between its starting key of D minor and its closing key of D major. The scherzo’s minor-key music is loud and brittle, while the contrasting trio section moves to the major key for a smooth and quiet response.

The finale features the breakneck triplet rhythm of a tarantella, a manic Italian dance meant to rid a victim of deadly tarantula venom. The prestissimo coda flirts with an optimistic major-key resolution, but in the end D minor regains its grip, closing the quartet in the death-obsessed key in which it began.

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Hersch’s string quartet, Images from a Closed Ward, emerged from an encounter in Rome in 2000. The American artist Michael Mazur (1935-2009) had created a series of etchings to accompany Robert Pinsky’s new translation of Dante’s Inferno, and Mazur’s works were on display at the American Academy in Rome while the 29-year-old Hersch was there as a Rome Prize Fellow. (By the age of 30, Hersch had been awarded not only the Rome Prize, but also the coveted Berlin Prize; four years earlier, he had become one of the youngest ever recipients of a Guggenheim Fellowship.) During their time in the Eternal City, Hersch and Mazur recognized each other as kindred spirits. Hersch later wrote, “Although we worked in very different mediums, I often felt that Mazur understood what I was doing better than most.” In 2003, Mazur provided artwork and commentary for Hersch’s first CD release, a collection of his chamber music performed by the String Soloists of the Berlin Philharmonic. In describing Hersch’s style, Mazur noted, “I am struck by what might constitute an analogy with painting and with my own work in particular. There is, of course, the overwhelming sense of ‘sadness,’ which is better than ‘doom.’ In fact, the ‘abyss’ of finality is easy to portray: a rich black says it all.”

Mazur began to make his name in the 1960’s with two groups of etchings and lithographs, Closed Ward and Locked Ward. His subject matter involved a different form of confinement than Dante’s rings of hell, but his vivid depictions of inmates in a Rhode Island mental asylum peered into an abyss all its own. Reviewing the etchings in 1964 for The New York Times, John Canaday wrote that Mazur’s tormented subjects “have the terrible anonymity of individuals who cannot be reached, whose ugly physical presence is only the symptom of a tragic spiritual isolation.” It was these images that resonated with Hersch and that helped to shape his first string quartet since one composed during his student days, almost twenty years earlier. Once he had the work outlined, Hersch decided that he would contact the artist with whom he had not spoken in some time. Hersch recalls, “I was extremely excited at the prospect of seeing him again, and sharing the terrain of this new quartet. I felt that he would be surprised and pleased that something he had done had a hand in the shaping of this new work. The day before I planned to write him, I read of his untimely death in a Sunday newspaper.”

An etching from Mazur’s Closed Ward series hangs directly over Hersch’s writing desk in Pennsylvania. The etching depicts figures seated on a wide bench, back to back. In the foreground, a man is crumpled over with his hands nearly brushing his bare feet; his limbs are clearly outlined, but his head and torso are shaded to a deep, impenetrable black. The person next to him is a bundled sack of gray, the face distorted. Behind them are hooded figures and a ghostly partial image. There is a sooty, Dickensian objectivity to the scene, and yet the image is surreal and fragile, like a partially remembered dream.

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Images from a Closed Ward uses twelve separate movements to convey a disquieting reality from multiple vantage points. Music, unlike art, requires time to unfold, and Hersch stretches out the unveiling with glacially slow tempos. The work never creeps higher than 66 beats per minute (like a resting heart rate) and it drops as low as 34 beats per minute, obscuring any sense of pulse. Another distinctive trait of the quartet is how, apart from the climactic counterpoint of the 11th movement, the four players often work together in formations of massed sonorities. These homophonic or quasi-homophonic textures hearken back to Renaissance and earlier church traditions, a connection reinforced by open harmonies that avoid stylized triads and tonal expectations. Hersch’s ancient, pre-tonal tendencies are most apparent in the pale chorale texture of the first movement, which functions as a prelude to the work as a whole.

The players maintain rhythmic lockstep throughout the second and fourth movements, issuing loud and ferocious bursts of chattering chords. These two aggressive sections bookend the haunting third movement, marked with an expressive indication of “longing; quiet, restrained grief.” The plucked cello provides a dirge-like foundation for the understated and strangely heroic melodies.

The fifth movement brings the first taste of brittle counterpoint. The sixth movement also divides the ensemble, with two pairs sparring in opposing strata of slow and fast motion. The seventh movement looks back to the smooth chords of the first movement, but the sound takes on greater urgency and motion, propelled by the ceaseless cello line. The eighth movement reduces the work’s violent streak to dry attacks, the players assaulting their strings with the wooden bow-sticks.

The ninth movement returns to the aching purity of long-tones, with a performance instruction of “haunted; stricken.” The following movement, marked “frozen,” drops the quartet into total stasis, a cold darkness reinforced by the use of mutes.

From this point of maximal tension, the eleventh movement erupts with ferocious, unrelenting rage. Gone are the targeted jabs of the second and fourth movements, in which the instruments moved together. For more than ten minutes, the four voices engage in a battle of ripping, gouging, and stabbing counterpoint, followed by an arresting silence.

The final section of the quartet reprises the wistful music of the third movement; the melody provides solace, but not relief, as it once again leaves the final phrase unresolved.

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In Dante’s Inferno, the gates of hell bear the familiar inscription that ends: “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate” (“Abandon all hope, you who enter here”). Must these composers have abandoned hope, to have entered such frightening musical territory? Mazur’s final thoughts about Hersch’s early chamber music seem to apply equally well to both Images from a Closed Ward and Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet: “These compositions are filled sometimes with frightening sounds. They are unrelenting, nearly without hope. … But no artwork can be without hope since it is in the very nature of creative work to be optimistic, if only in as much as we continue to work through everything but our own death.”