7:30 PM, Friday, April 26, 2019
Tougaloo College - Woodworth Chapel


Schubert’s immortal, lyrical Death and the Maiden is countered by William Walton’s jaunty Façade-An Entertainment, a saucy and humorous theater piece with Jackson’s beloved mezzo-soprano at its center, expressively narrating the poetry of Edith Sitwell atop the lively, colorful movements from six core MSO musicians. 


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Franz Schubert, String Quartet No. 14, in D minor, D. 810 "Death and the Maiden" 

William Walton, Façade - An Entertainment  

      Lester Senter Wilson, narrator  

FRANZ SCHUBERT: String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810 “Death and the Maiden”

On March 31, 1824, Franz Schubert wrote to a friend:

‘In a word, I feel myself to be the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world. Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and who, in sheer despair over this, ever makes things worse and worse, instead of better. Imagine a man, I say, whose most brilliant hopes have perished, to whom the felicity of love and friendship have nothing to offer but pain, and enthusiasm for the beautiful is fast vanishing; and ask yourself if such a man is not truly unhappy.’

It was two years after Schubert had contracted syphilis, which in 1822 was a very serious illness. By early 1823 he was too weak to leave his house, and by late spring he was desperately ill. He checked himself into the general hospital in Vienna, and on May 8, composed this poem:

          Take my life, my flesh and blood,

Plunge it all in Lethe’s flood,

To a purer stronger state.

Deign me, Great One, to translate.

Poor health was not his only problem. Schubert was in dire need of funds. Although his “Wanderer” Fantasy for piano (Op. 15) was published in February of 1823, the 25-year-old compounded his problems by making a poor business decision----he sold all publication rights for Opus 1 through 14 to Cappi and Diabelli for two lump sums. Yet through all this, Schubert never stopped composing. The stunning song cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin came out of this most depressing time in his life.

Schubert liked to recycle material from his own works, particularly his songs. Examples include the “Wanderer” Fantasy for piano, the “Trout” Quintet, and the “Rosamunde” Quartet, which quotes his incidental music for a play, as well as an early song. Seven years before this quartet, Schubert had composed his song Der Tod und das Mädchen(“Death and the Maiden”). In the song, a seriously ill young woman begs that Death pass her by. Death, depicted as a comforter, assures her he will only take her hand and soothe her to sleep.

But the tragic tone of the quartet is made clear at the onset, and the entire quartet seems to reflect Schubert’s inner struggle with the idea of his own impending death. After a loud initial exclamation of foreboding and rage opens the work, the strings settle into an insistent triplet rhythm that will pervade the entire movement. Schubert’s harmonic shifts bring moments of both bittersweet angst and hope, but the overall mood is dark, scaffolded by a surprising amount of contrapuntal activity. The second movement is five variations on a theme taken from the piano introduction to his song. This is not an academic formal exercise in building variations, but another emotional journey. The third movement scherzo takes on a sinister character, with its disorienting rhythms (it begins on an accented upbeat), but there is relief in the wistful Trio (middle) section that leaves D minor for D Major, briefly. Schubert chose to write the Finale as a terrifying “Tarantella”, the origin of which is a Southern Italian folk dance that was used againstpoisonous spider bites (or that came as a result of the bite—we are not sure which). Once again, an association with death. The “Death and the Maiden” quartet is among Schubert’s most popular works, not surprising because of its dramatic contrasts, violent mood shifts, achingly beautiful second movement, and diabolical finale.


The English composer William Walton is well known for his orchestral and choral music. His “Viola Concerto” is considered a masterpiece of the genre and his cantata for baritone and choir, Belshazzar’s Feast, was championed by Sir Malcolm Sargent, George Szell and André Previn, and is still popular today. But it is Façade that has endured in the public’s imagination since its 1923 premiere. Between 1916 and 1930 three siblings -- Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell -- gathered a kind of literary clique about them, one that included fashionable figures in the art world. In 1918, Edith published a set of poems in the literary magazine Wheels, entitled Façade. About the poems, she wrote:

‘The poems in Façade are abstract patterns, in the sense of which certain pictures are abstract patterns. I wrote them at a time when a revivification of rhythmic patterns in English poetry had become necessary, owing to the verbal deadness then prevalent. The poems tell no story, convey no moral. Some have a violent exhilaration and great gaiety, while others have sadness veiled by gaiety, many are exercises in transcendental technique – virtuoso exercises; but they are inspired, too, by high spirits. Many were meant to make people laugh.’

The idea for adding music to Façade came from the Sitwells. “I remember thinking it was not a very good idea,” Walton said later, “but when I said so, they simply told me that they’d get Constant Lambert [another composer] to do it if I wouldn’t.” So in 1922, Walton came up with an independent but coordinated instrumental accompaniment to the spoken poems. It was an audacious combination of popular, music-hall, cabaret and jazz idioms, and it shocked musical London. We hear polkas, tarantellas, waltzes, hornpipes, fanfares, tangos, and yodeling songs.Overnight, Walton became the enfant terrible of modern English music. Façade was panned by the press. The title of the review in The Daily Graphic was, “The Drivel They Paid to Hear.” Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh and Noel Coward were there -- Coward walked out. In program notes for a benefit performance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York years later, Edith Sitwell reflected on that premiere:

‘The public fled in a panic. Waylaying a passing postman and the fireman of the hall, in which the first public performance took place, they asked their opinion. They opined that we were mad. A well-known revue-writer and other such custodians of the purity of the English language, and of style in literature, were of the same opinion. We were subjected to floods of abuse, often of an exceedingly personal and scurrilous nature. But, that is twenty-five years ago and the work is now, in England, a most popular entertainment. For we have been forgiven.’ 

As Walton’s widow, Susana wrote:  “Humor is so rare in music. You go to a concert and people look as if they are sitting in church. But, as soon as you hear the fanfare of Façade, you know you are in for a good time.”

We know you will enjoy tonight’s Chamber performance.

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