Fri, 05 Mar 1999

German quartet looks at death from two different angles

By Gus Kairupan

JAKARTA (JP): Death ... submit to it gracefully and eternal rest will be yours. Resist it and you will kick the bucket in a most horrible manner. That, in a way, was the message conveyed by the Pedersen String Quartet from Germany at its performance on last Friday at Erasmus Huis. The program featured just two works: Schubert's oeuvre for string quartet, subtitled Death and the Maiden, and the composition by 20th century German composer, Siegfried Matthus (b. 1934), for a similar setting, called The Maiden and Death. The concert was the third of the festival of music from member countries of the European Union.

Both are obviously programmatic works, i.e. works with other messages than the purely musical; in this case it was Schubert's song, Death and the Maiden (composed in 1817, published 1821). (Death's words of consolation) in the quartet to be exact, the second movement, Andante con moto, where it is treated like a theme and variations. Hence, the quartet, too, though composed in 1824 and published in 1831, three years after his death, became known as the Death and the Maiden quartet. It is not known whether the nickname came from Schubert himself.

Anyhow, it is the last half of the song that is Matthus' inspiration for his quartet, in which death implores the maiden not to be afraid and that "you shall sleep peacefully in my arms". Obviously this is the angel of death. Terrifying, of course, but still an angel, and the implication is that the maiden might well have found rest in death, even though she did resist in the first half of the song: "Go! Go Away, you, Man of Bones!" Schubert's girl is worthy of a measure of sympathy.

But maidens in Schubert's time were a far cry from their descendants today. These days the word implies a girl of unsullied virtue, pure as the driven snow, chaste, whatever. Well, in another nine months we will be entering the 21st century, and if you are searching for what may be described as "maiden", you would probably be far more successful in finding a needle in a barn chock-full of haystacks. Any barn anywhere -- east, west, north, south and every point in between on the globe. Today's maidens (and lads, too, of course) are strictly of the "seen that, been there, done that" variety. "O death, where is thy sting?" -- yeah, yeah, ultimate groove, man! That's where Matthus comes in.

His quartet is written for these times, and in his version Death is Mephistopheles himself, poor devil! What with mores having changed so much that today he is regarded as no more than an inconvenience and, scientists looking for ways and means to make a person live practically forever, his moments of leisure are getting longer and longer. He must have his quota, though, so he reverts to all sorts of blandishments, flattery, cajolery, anything to get the girl. Let us not call her maiden, and never mind the heavily implied sexism (why do poets consider a woman's death so much more tragic than a man's?).

But to get back to the devil: "Hey, girl! Try this!" and out comes smack, dope, coke, hash, etc., and she discovers too late that there is a price involved. But she does not give up that easily, and the Devil has a devil of a time dragging her down to Hades where she will probably make life hell for him. The triumphant end of the second movement (Senza tempo soave con tenerezza) heralds his victory, of course, and the final movement, Alla marcia funebre -- funeral march to you -- depicts her entombment.

The juxtaposition of the two works, Schubert's and Matthus' is a clear indication that Claudius' poem set to music by Schubert is a major -- maybe even the most important -- element of the entire recital. Time will tell whether this pairing will hold. The Maiden and Death was written in 1996, so, presumably, both works will already have been performed as a pair several times before coming to Jakarta. It may well be that in time classical music aficionados will one day refer to the two quartets in the same breath, but I cannot see this happening very soon.

But this is not a case of one being better than the other. Matthus' quartet certainly has its merits as a contribution to music of these times -- which might as well be described as the 21st century -- as Schubert's was during his days. I found myself impressed with his Maiden and Death rather than Schubert's Death and the Maiden. I am also inclined to ascribe this to the interpretation of the Pedersen quartet. Theirs was a virtuoso performance in every sense of the word, but I found it difficult to associate Schubert's quartet (like most of his works) with such extremities of dynamics and outbursts of violent emotions.

Could Schubert have meant the quartet to sound like that -- it would, after all, be in tune with the zeitgeist of his times, storm and stress and all that, and Goethe was still around. I was gasping with admiration at the Pedersen Quartet's virtuosity, and feeling totally drained afterwards. The intermission that followed it was an absolute necessity, for it provided time to let it all sink in. Some things fell in place when the quartet presented Matthus' work after the intermission, such as similarities in dynamic range and tone.

As I said, virtuosity in every sense of the word, but the question regarding the interpretation of Schubert's quartet is still nagging me.