Death and the Maiden’s New Clothes

It’s interesting to consider just how important a role the instrumentation and orchestration of a piece of music play in its overall aesthetic. I never gave it all that much thought. I knew there were some tremendously gifted orchestrators scattered throughout musical history like Rimsky-Korsakov and Berlioz and Haydn. I knew that many composers had authorized arrangements of their music in new orchestrations if they didn’t do it themselves. I knew that the character of a piece could change based on the instrumental colors it was dressed in. But rarely has the fundamental nature of a musical moment shifted so radically to my ears than when I ran across a version of the Schubert “Death and the Maiden” Quartet for full orchestra.

The quartet is arguably the most famous string quartet in existence, and the second movement in particular is out of this world beautiful:

The chorale-like opening (which, by the way, owes a huge debt to Beethoven 7) to my ears takes on an air of calm and peaceful resignation. It sets the stage for what I hope is the music that plays when my life flashes before my eyes as I lay dying in the streets, a series of variations with a whole host of moods and intensities that ultimately lead back to an even gentler sigh into the great beyond at the movement’s end. The intimacy of the quartet setting gives the music a genuinely haunting sense of personal involvement for me, and it tends to stir up all kinds of memories and regrets and shit.

The opening motive actually comes from a song Schubert wrote in 1817 that gives the quartet its name. The music in its original setting for voice and piano is much darker, and the keystrokes on the piano give it a crispness that the strings obviously lack. It makes the music sounds significantly creepier, but it also suits the poem ludicrously well:

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!

No less a figure than Gustav Mahler arranged the quartet for a full string orchestra, and like other famous transcriptions with the same idea, the emotional weight of the chamber music setting is essentially amplified (as we saw in the Shostakovich Chamber Symphony). The addition of basses provides a larger foundation upon which everything rests, and the sense of resignation is a bit less calm and a bit more “all other options have been exhausted” feeling, but the overall sensation remains the same.

All of which is why it was so shocking to hear the version for full orchestra arranged by a gentleman named Andy Stein and recorded for Naxos by the Buffalo Philharmonic and JoAnn Falletta. This music went from resignation to menace at the drop of a hat, or the addition of a timpani and winds in this case. The third phrase especially (the one with the crescendo) sounds downright hostile – I keep picturing some kind of scene where a guy is walking away from a building full of his enemies that he just set on fire with a blank stare on his face. It actually reminds me a bit of the chorale from the Purcell “Funeral Music for Queen Mary,” which was also mentioned here recently.

And here’s the best part: I fucking love it. Even if I’m not supposed to. Who knows what the reason for even thinking it was a worthwhile endeavor to orchestrate the piece was, but who gives a shit? The result, especially this now thirsty-for-bloody-vengeance chorale, is good enough to justify it. I’ll never hear this music the same way again, and I never want to.


One thought on “Death and the Maiden’s New Clothes

  1. The name Andy Stein seemed familiar to me. I thought, “Is that the same guy who plays fiddle and saxophone in the house band on Prairie Home Companion?” It is:

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