Mir graust es, wenn ich sein Antlitz sehe—
Der Mond zeigt mir meine eigne Gestalt
(It horrifies me when I see his face
The moon reveals my own likeness)
Chillingly, these words from Franz Schubert’s song “Der Doppelgänger,” taken from Heinrich Heine’s 1827 Buch der Lieder, depict an uncanny moment of recognition. Franz Schubert set this text to music in 1828—shortly before his death—as part of a collection that was published posthumously under the title Schwanengesang (“Swan Song”). Jeremy Geffen, executive and artistic director of Cal Performances, likens the song to “a Twilight Zone episode in four minutes.”
Heine himself left this poem untitled to intensify the degree of shock and surprise when the narrator realizes he is seeing his Doppelgänger, whereas Schubert clues us in to the troubled emotional atmosphere with the ominous chord sequence heard at the outset. Here, already, is a phase in the process of responding and remaking a source that we might call “doppelgänging,” in the spirit of the Danish String Quartet’s (DSQ) ambitious Doppelgänger Project, an initiative that reconsiders four of Schubert’s greatest chamber music compositions in the context of newly commissioned works, each given a program of its own.
The fuzziness around the German word Doppelgänger is intentional. On the one hand, the word is used simply to refer to a harmless lookalike (a person who can even be sought out online via image recognition apps or who can be conjured via rapidly evolving AI technology). But the mythic implications of this phenomenon reach deep into the psyche, providing an obsessive trope for the Romantics. (The novelist Jean Paul, a favorite of Mahler, has been credited with coining the term.).
The notion of deceptively identical appearances that can disguise polarities opens up yet another dimension embedded within the concept. One of Schubert’s own friends described the composer as having “a double nature—inwardly a kind of poet and outwardly a kind of hedonist.”
“I think everybody has an idea of what a Doppelgänger is,” says DSQ violist Asbjørn Nørgaard. “It can be a very mystical term filled with images and history and philosophy, but it’s also something that is a very physical thing.” Similarly, in the process of commissioning the four composers, the DSQ wanted to give ample leeway to each to interpret for themselves how to respond or react to the Schubert work with which they have been paired. “We only created the framework. They might choose to quote the Schubert piece or they might write something completely different. We didn’t know beforehand how they would respond to the challenge.”
Indeed, the responses have so far been remarkably varied in strategy and character. The DSQ launched their cycle in the fall of 2021 with a contribution by the Danish composer Bent Sørensen (born in 1958), in whose Schubertian title, Doppelgänger, they found a name for the entire project. Sørensen deliberately incorporated Doppelgänger-like gestures into his score—a product of the pandemic lockdowns—in response to Schubert’s vast final work in the genre, the String Quartet in G major of 1826 (D. 887).
Pige, by the Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski (born in 1970 and a former student of Kaija Saariaho and the late Louis Andriessen), entailed an even more overt reaction to its counterpart: Schubert’s best-known quartet, Death and the Maiden (D. 810, from 1824). The Danish word pige is an equivalent to Mädchen or “maiden” and suggests the new perspective Wennäkoski brings to her piece. Referring to the dialogue between Death and the young girl in the song from which Schubert drew for the slow movement of his D minor Quartet, she explains: “I wanted to include the young girls’s song in my piece, whereas Schubert uses only Death’s song.”
In April 2023, the DSQ continues the reverse-chronological sequence of late Schubert quartets with a program combining the A minor Quartet, D. 804 (Rosamunde), written earlier in 1824, with Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s intriguing new work Rituals. The Icelandic composer’s response to the DSQ’s commission represents the opposite end of the spectrum: instead of reacting to or commenting on the Schubert, Thorvaldsdottir opted for no explicit engagement at all, adapting her unique sonic language and use of atmosphere to the string quartet medium. Yet whether by coincidence or as still another manifestation of the uncanny tendency for Doppelgängers to appear where you least expect them, her use of repetition in shifting contexts suggests a resemblance with what Nørgaard calls “the ritualistic repetition of gestures” in the Rosamunde Quartet.
The fourth and final commissioned work, to be unveiled next season, is a string quintet by Thomas Adès, which will be twinned with Schubert’s String Quintet in C major, D. 956, from his final year. Why the geographical shift from the other three Nordic Sea composers? Nørgaard explains that Adès has a strong affinity for the music of this region, as the DSQ showed on their 2016 album Adès, Nørgård & Abrahamsen.
“On one side, we wanted composers we like to work with, who have a musical language that we like,” says Nørgaard, describing their criteria for choosing the Doppelgänger Project composers. “But we also wanted something new, something different.” In this way, the DSQ, who have burnished their reputation as excitingly fresh and insightful interpreters of the classical canon, have been opening up new horizons.
Assessing reactions midway through the project, Nørgaard singles out how Wennäkoski’s Pige was “very elegantly connected to Death and the Maiden in its commentary on gender roles—so that the performance of that piece became a comment on the very industry where the performance took place. It’s exciting to be able to make classical chamber music relevant by putting Schubert in a context so that the concerts become an open discussion—not just about the music but about the historical impact and cultural debates going on today.”
The Doppelgänger Project, according to Jeremy Geffen, resonates with the Cal Performances mission: “It is incumbent on any arts organization to move the repertoire forward, to create those works that in 50 years will be considered canonical. So this project very much aligns with Cal Performances, which has a history of taking risks in supporting new work. I appreciate so much the curiosity of our audience, as well as the fact that the DSQ are using their platform to lift up contemporary composers.”
Thomas May is a writer, critic, educator, and translator. Along with essays regularly commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, the Juilliard School, and other leading institutions, he contributes to the New York Times and Musical America and blogs about the arts at www.memeteria.com.