Top 50 Favorite/Best Classical – Honorable Mention – Schubert String Quartet No. 14, D. 810 “Der Tod und das Mädchen”

Invoking the emergence of Death, hearkening back a few years to Beethoven’s Fifth, and inspiring metal rock and roll in the future, Schubert strikes a slashing D minor in fortissimo across the four instruments. The beginning of his Quartet No. 14 in D minor has one of the most striking starts, coming at an early time for programmatic music. String quartets to this point were absolute music, not programmatic, not telling a story. In this case however, because he borrows from themes an earlier song he composed, this string quartet becomes a storyteller. 

The first movement this eardrum splitting introduction followed by a two-themed exposition that is notated with a repeat. I prefer the repeat musically. The first theme is in D minor and the second theme is in the relative F major, which is fairly common of the time. The main key component of the first movement is the constant and quite dramatic dance between fortissimo and pianissimo dynamics, setting the stage for the second movement’s invocation of the Death and Maiden theme. Death is harsh and fortissimo while the Maiden is soft and pianissimo.  

The second movement states the theme borrowed from one of Schubert’s earlier songs, Der Tod und Das Mädchen, which was based on a poem by Matthias Claudius. The poem is as follows:

The Maiden:

“Oh! leave me! Prithee, leave me! thou grisly man of bone!

For life is sweet, is pleasant.

Go! leave me now alone!

Go! leave me now alone!”

Death:

“Give me thy hand, oh! maiden fair to see,

For I’m a friend, hath ne’er distress’d thee.

Take courage now, and very soon

Within mine arms shalt softly rest thee!”

The movement starts with this theme and follows with five variations with each iteration repeated once through. 

It’s really fascinating how this piece straddles the line between programmatic music and absolute music. You can tell there is just the slightest breath of a story even without knowing the poem it is based on. See, in the third movement, the violent scherzo, you can hear the proverbial devil play his fiddle as he dances about, having captured the maiden at last. For me, the fourth movement feels closer to absolute music rather than the storytelling of the first three movements. Schubert uses a five part rondo. 

For the time being I give this quartet an honorable mention, but I might include it if/when I revise my list. 

#18 – Mozart Don Giovanni, K. 527

#19 – Liszt Les Preludes, S. 97

#20 – Mozart Le Nozze di Figaro, K. 492

#21 – Tchaikovsky Swan Lake, Op. 20 

#22 – Mahler Symphony No. 2 in C minor

#23 – Tchaikovsky String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 11

#24 – Williams Empire Strikes Back

#25 – Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 in Eb major, Op. 73

#26 – Bernstein West Side Story

#27 – Enescu – Octet for Strings in C major, Op. 7

#28 – Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110

#29 – Mussorgsky Night on Bald Mountain

#30 – Webber Phantom of the Opera

#31 – Prokofiev Alexander Nevsky

#32 – Chopin Nocturne in Bb minor, Op. 9, No. 1

#33 – Debussy Images, Book 1, L110

#34 – Debussy Pour Le Piano, L. 95

#35 – Chaminade Guitare, Op. 32

#36 – Chopin Berceuse in Db major, Op. 57

#37 – Boulanger Nocturne pour violon et piano

#38 – Schönberg Les Miserables

#39 – Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18

#40 – Miranda Hamilton

#41 – Strauss Salomé

#42 – Britten Peter Grimes

#43 – Loewe My Fair Lady

#44 – Liszt Mephisto Waltzes

#45 – Webber Evita

#46 – Poledouris Conan The Barbarian

#47 – Bernstein Trouble in Tahiti

#48 – Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

#49 – Chaminade La Lisonjera, Op. 50

#50 – Beethoven Coriolan Overture, Op. 62

Honorable Mention

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

Desmond Take Five

Wagner Die Walküre 

Puccini Tosca

Davis So What

Stravinsky Petroushka 

Wagner Tristan Und Isolde

Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings

Williams Raiders of the Lost Ark

Verdi Aïda

Schoenberg Verklärte Nacht

Grisey Les espaces acoustiques

Gade – Octet for 4 violins, 2 violas, 2 violoncellos in F major, Op. 17

Schubert – Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759

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