death and the maiden …

The Ride of Eternity

Luigi Giussani

In the first movement of Schubert’s quartet, after the very brief, almost involuntary, passing hint at death, there is like a sudden reawakening and life returns triumphant. The whole of the first movement is as though determined by the affirmation of life, death is as though obliterated. But death is a fact, and that fact sooner or later imposes itself; in the face of facts, one cannot daydream forever.

The very beautiful second movement represents the theme of death and is like a sob in the literal sense of the term, a sob expressed by an attack of the strings: in the face of death we try to live with our usual caution, but the evidence of the fact is too strong, and in the second movement man seems to give in and to cry.

But it is not possible, man cannot accept that the meaning of existence be negative; thus, in the third movement, there is a sort of debate between yes and no, between hope and despair. This third passage resembles the life of the human heart, a mixture, a mingling of the situations experienced in the first and second movement, like an ordeal of the heart in which the sad memory continues to dominate, but is restrained and penetrated by the desire to go on living.

The last movement describes what we affirm when we say that reality is a sign. Death does not have the last word, just as the corruption of forms is not the truth of things. For here life that seems to end does not die, but moves into the eternal, as a song of Adriana Mascagni says: “make me walk in the being.” The fourth section, that I call the ride of eternity, is the description of a positive, victorious vibration, like a horse-ride, riding in the great fields of heaven with all the company that now surrounds us, because the eternal is the truth of the present, and it is nice to imagine it on horse-back. The Mystery that makes all things has conceived them with this positive clarity, with this ultimate love, because everything is destined to happiness. We must break through all limits, and then we begin to be happy on earth: “Whoever follows me will have eternal life and a hundred-fold in this world.” said the Jew Jesus of Nazareth. Only the thought of death can impart to the thoughts about life the thematic intensity, the melodic drama, and the positive clarity that emerge in the last movement of this masterpiece by Schubert. The debate between yes and no is resolved in the mysterious yes of the fourth and last movement. It is a mysterious yes, because Schubert does not know the face of destiny, but he knows that there is, there must be … the great horse-ride.