In the Face of Death: Franz Schubert's String Quintet in C Major

Tim Farrand
Portrait of Franz Schubert, oil on wood by Gábor Melegh, 1827

The last two years of Franz Schubert's life, unknowingly, have always been central to my love for his music. From 1827 to 1828, Schubert wrote many of the compositions that have become essential in my life over the past decade and a half that I have been approaching his music as both listener and performer. Pieces such as Winterreise, the last piano sonatas, the Drei Klavierstücke, the F Minor piano duet, the two Piano Trios, the Ninth Symphony, and his String Quintet in C Major, all were written during those last two years of Schubert's brief but fruitful existence.

Benjamin Britten, in a valedictory address from 1964, speaks of this period in Schubert's creative output, hinting that it was perhaps spurred on by the death of Ludwig van Beethoven:

The last instrumental piece that Schubert wrote was his String Quintet in C Major. Schubert achieves a terseness of musical expression that makes each bar pregnant with meaning even in a work lasting nearly 50 minutes. There are symmetries and dichotomies that tie the entire piece together as Bruce Adolphe points out. Just as Beethoven's late works have a higher level of interconnections of themes, motives, and expressions, Schubert achieves much the same with this work.

There is a dichotomy between darkness and light that runs throughout Schubert's works but it is at its most intense in the C Major Quintet. Even the first few bars go from light to dark and back again:

For an hour-long discussion of all the intricacies of the first movement, listen to Adolphe's lecture. This essay will investigate the second movement.

Reassurance in Death

Many have viewed this second movement of Schubert's C Major Quintet as the essence of one coming to terms with the end of life. Thomas Mann wanted it played on his deathbed as did Arthur Rubinstein who sees the work as beckoning one into heaven, releasing life as one "resigned and happy":

The first section evokes the atmosphere of one coming to the end of their life by the way it is scored as well as the fact we know it was written only weeks before Schubert died, a fact that inevitably impacts the way we hear the piece. There is an intimate aloneness—different from loneliness—that Schubert creates in his use of the instruments. The middle voices act as a background of harmonic expression similar to film music which allows for a greater depth of understanding for the foreground dialogue. Against this background of still, reserved chords Schubert gives the voice of the main subject to the first violin. With starts and stops, no long melodies but rather short phrases, Schubert paints the picture of one frail and holding on to one world while looking to another. That second world, one can presume, is illustrated by the lowest voice of pizzicati in the cello. They act as dialogue partners: the cello plays the role of fate to which the first violin is conversing:

After this first poignant confrontation with reality comes a beautiful section where the first violin takes on the pizzicati in dialogue with the cello so as to put one foot into the world of fate, the first step in coming to terms with the end. These pizzicati in the violin then turn wonderfully back into bowed expressions, as in the first iteration, but now with a sense of that resignation that Rubenstein points out. Schubert ends this first major section with a little coda that encapsulates the feeling of one in acceptance of their mortality:

The music doesn't end there. In the middle section comes the darkness, the struggle against fate, that can be found throughout Schubert's music. The five minute opening of the movement is the longest stretch in the whole quintet that darkness doesn't invade but at this point it does, the subject now not contented to let go, struggling, searching for a way out:

Searching for Meaning

In the middle section, it is as if Schubert is searching for meaning. There is struggle made apparent from the deep expressions of the first violin and the offbeat accompaniment by the middle voices. Present here is the dichotomy between life, which is inseparably attached to suffering, and death, which would presumably relieve that suffering.

There is a video titled "A 97-Year-Old Philosopher Faces His Own Death," a video that I revisit a few times a year, that takes a look into the reality of one who is at the end of their life. The 97-year-old philosopher was Herbert Fingarette and he says, "it is very difficult for people who have not reached a state of old age. . .to understand the psychology of it, what is going on in the person." The first few minutes give an intimate picture of waking up into a 97-year-old life, the music in the background being the second movement of Schubert's Quintet in C Major:

Herbert Fingarette taught philosophy at the University of California for about 40 years and even wrote a book investigating death—20 years before this video was filmed—yet struggles to find a sense of resignation or acceptance of his own death. In his book titled Death: Philosophical Soundings, Fingarette concluded that there was no need to be afraid or concerned about death because "when you die there is nothing." If we were purely rational beings that objective conclusion could be enough, yet we are not and as he reached the end of his life he found that the better thing would not have been to try to disprove the fear of death but rather investigate the reasons we are afraid of it. Whether there is a good reason or not, he says, "it is something that haunts me, the idea of dying soon:"

He asks himself, looking back on life, how he is in the position he is in now, lonely and scared, considering: what does life mean? what is the point of it all?

Having been a philosopher his entire life, he is still a "puzzle" to himself:

He continues to ask the question: "What is the point of it all?" and after all this time he wonders if perhaps the "silent answer" might just be that "there is no point:"

Fingarette puts a record on, Schubert's String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, and states that "loneliness and absence [are an] absolute part of my life." This has to do with the fact that he lost his wife a few years prior. They were quite close and married for nearly 70 years. Having to confront life without her—he says that since she has gone he feels a part of himself has gone—perhaps leaves him with that sense of meaninglessness spoken of earlier. "Her absence," he says, "has been to me for a number of years. . .a presence. An absence which was present to me." There is an "emptiness. . .something missing." Listening to the record, he bursts into tears, for it brings back the memory of sitting, listening to it with his wife while they held hands:

Now, at the end of his life, he has to face the act of living without having his wife—without having that other part of himself—he has to face the reality of being and find a way to come to terms with it. Like Schubert, he realizes that life contains a lot of suffering, and living perhaps only perpetuates that but yet he struggles to let it go:

In confronting death, he begins to take a greater appreciation for things that were always there but got overlooked. He sees the trees differently and regrets not spending more time enjoying them. The simple act of viewing nature becomes "a transcendent experience." It is revealed to him what is meaningful and what is not, what matters, what is worth embracing.

He looks back on life and sees all the things he has dealt with theoretically and been able to solve. Facing the question of death is one thing he feels he has failed to adequately come to terms with. So, he goes on "existing" and "waiting," as he states, "waiting until I have to say goodbye:"

Whitman's paralytic stroke also produced a change in the way he perceived the world around him—"while I have of course seen [these skies] every day of my life, I never really saw the skies before". Sitting amongst the trees and watching a "beautiful sunset" filled Whitman with the notion that he was "having a happy hour," something rare as he reflects on the words of Byron who stated that he only had three happy hours in his life.

Mary Oliver echos the sentiment of wanting to fill each day with an abundance of life so as not come to the end with regrets for not having lived:

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it's over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

Mary Oliver, When Death Comes

Henry David Thoreau echos similar sentiments in Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Two Paths: Nihilism or an Existential Coming to Terms with Reality

When thinking of musical farewells it is hard not to include something of Gustav Mahler. The healthier, more optimistic view that comes from Das Lied von der Erde will be investigated in more depth at a later time but here it is important to diverge for a moment to take a look at the path that leads to bleakness, the path that borders on Nihilism or a giving in to the apparent meaninglessness of life and its suffering.

Leonard Bernstein investigates this nihilistic thread in the context of the early 20th Century and the catastrophes of human suffering that would follow in the pending two World Wars. At this same time, there was a kind of musical death occuring. The long chain of Western tonal music seemed to be disintegrating and coming to an end, Mahler being one of its last links. Bernstein sees Mahler's Ninth symphony as not only a farewell to life but also a farewell to a period of music that must somehow be either reborn or shifted into a new era (a further investigation is given in my essay on the apparent "Twentieth-Century Crisis"):

For Bernstein, the last page of Mahler's Ninth Symphony is the closest thing in music to the act of dying:

The lines that Bernstein quotes are from John Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale. The narrator of the poem hears the “full-throated” nightingale singing and is filled with abundant happiness. He contemplates the ease from which the bird is able to sing, not knowing any of the turmoil, pain, and grief of human life, the suffering of one aware of their mortality. The bird simply exists and sings in a perfect continuation of the nightingales that have sung for thousands of years. The bird is free and in hearing its song, the narrator says:

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.

For Bernstein, this last page of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony represents the act of giving into that “easeful death.” Take a listen:

There are many ways to view Mahler's Ninth, Bernstein seeing it perhaps more on the nihilistic side which would make it similar to the expression of in the soliloquy of Macbeth after he is given the news that "the queen, my lord, is dead" to which he responds "she should have died hereafter," continuing:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Shakespear, Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5

Ian McKellen gives a wonderful analysis of this text followed by a clip of his filmed recording of the play:

There is another path to take, one away from nihilism and towards the existential reality of our transcience, which is closer to the path Schubert arrives at in the second movement of his C Major Quintet. After the outburst given above at the start of the second section comes a relaxing of the initial knee-jerk music into expressions of one searching, struggling to decide which path the take.

A combination of memory and grief, these bars capture that struggle to find acceptance of one's impermanence. There are moments of release, tittering on the edge of acceptance, followed by those strained repeated notes, an attempt to push against fate:

In Das Lied von der Erde, Mahler sets the following stanza: [1]

Dark is life, is death.

The sky is forever blue, and the earth
Will long stand firm, and blossom in spring.
But you, man, how long will you live?
Not a hundred years are you permitted
to delight
In all the brittle vanity of this earth!

This confrontation with the shortness of life is expressed by Mahler in a letter to Bruno Walter:

“If I am to find my way back to myself, I have got to accept the horrors of loneliness. I speak in riddles, since you do not know what has gone on and is going on within. It is surely no hypochondriac fear of death, as you might suppose. I have long known that I must die... Without trying to explain or describe something for which there are probably no words, I simply say that at a single stroke I have lost any calm and peace of mind that I have ever achieved. I stand vis-à-vis de rien [face to face with nothingness], and now, at the end of my life, have to learn again to walk and stand.”

At the end of Das Lied von der Erde, Mahler is able to come to terms with finding meaning: [1]

Whither I go? I go, I wander to the mountains.
I seek peace for my lonely heart.
I wander to my homeland, to my abode!
Never shall I roam to foreign parts.
Calm is my heart and waiting for its hour:
The dear earth, everywhere blooms forth in
spring, grows green
Anew! Everywhere and eternally blue are the
distant places!
Eternally … Eternally …

Eduard von Bauernfeld, a friend of Schubert's, wrote: Even though Schubert was called pleasure-loving "there were also times when a black-winged demon of sorrow and melancholy forced itself into Schubert's company, not altogether an evil spirit, it is true, since in the dark consecrated hours it often brought out songs of the most agonizing beauty." [2]

As Schubert continues his journey, he inserts a profound section of complete halting of all motion and in the stillness makes the decision of where to go from here. The section, one of the most beautiful in all of music, ends with something hinting at a hymn, fitting for the acceptance that Schubert arrives at:

How to Die Well

There comes a time in life, Seneca tells us, that we have to give back the borrowed deck of cards that Nature has given to us. At that time, we must not complain but rather say: [3]

I thank you for this which I have had in my possession. I have indeed cared for your property, — even to my great disadvantage, — but, since you command it, I give it back to you and restore it thankfully and willingly…

We not only give back gladly but give back to Nature better than we were given: [4]

Take back a better mind than you gave: I seek no way of escape nor flee: I have voluntarily improved for you what you gave me without my knowledge; take it away.

We may often live as if our lives are eternal but Marcus Aurelius starkly reveals the reality: we are only here a short time. We just look around us and see that there was one person who buried another and that person was buried and, not long after, the person who buried him was buried. Crudely put, "Human lives are brief and trivial."[5] We are of relative "cosmic insignificance" as Oliver Burkeman would say.[6] Aurelius continues, "Yesterday a blob of semen, tomorrow embalming fluid, ash."[7] From one fluid to the next, from one state to the next, we pass through this life and into another as Walt Whitman wonderfully states:

The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, 6

Accept the knowledge of our death and we will be able to "pass through it as Nature demands. To give it up without complaint." Aurelius ends with this beautiful metaphor on how we should die:[8]

Like an olive that ripens and falls.
Praising its mother, thanking the tree it grew on.

At the end of his epic Song of Myself, Whitman states:

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under you boot-soles.

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, 52

Schubert, after his hymn-like acceptance, returns to the opening section of music, transformed. The low cello no longer has fate-like pizzicati but rather little flowing lines. The confrontation with reality is no longer something severe or frightening. The violin's dialogue with the cello shows a sense of giving of oneself to the reality of being and calmly consenting to follow where one must go:

What was painful now seems almost eagre. The violin figures have child-like energy and innocence to them as if curiosity has fueled an interest in what lies beyond, as Oliver states:

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

Mary Oliver, When Death Comes

There is not an absence of darkness but rather an ability to accept it and find a way through:

From this point on comes Schubert's expression of dying. There is a combination of the pizzicati in the violin with its bowed lines. It is no longer in conflict but the subject does need to find a way to exit the world and this music expresses the struggle of life leaving the body:

Life contains suffering but also beauty as Kobayashi Issa expresses:

In this world
we walk on the roof of hell
gathering blossoms.


1. Translation by George Bird and Richard Stokes:

2. The letter first heard in Bruce Adolphe's lecture: "Inside Chamber Music with Bruce Adolphe: Schubert's Cello Quintet,"

3. Quote found in Maria Popova's article "On the Tranquility of Mind: Seneca on Resilience, the Trap of Power and Prestige, and How to Calibrate Our Ambitions for Maximum Contentment" published on The Marginalian,

4. Ibid.

5. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.48. Translation by Gregory Hays (New York: Modern Library: 2002), 47-8.

6. See, "Oliver Burkeman: Time Management for Mortals," an episode of the On Being podcast,

7. See footnote 5.

8. Ibid.

February 3, 2022

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