With the singer expected to portray both the Maiden and Death in less than two and a half minutes, one could expect difficulties in characterisation occurring. However, Schubert helps the singer by writing the music for the Maiden and Death in the head and middle/chest registers respectively.
The music for the Maiden encompasses a semitone less than one full octave, from E4 to Eb5. By keeping the music in the lighter head register, Schubert helps to produce the characterisation of the young maiden through the sound of the voice itself. In the contralto head register we can hear the Maiden’s youth. We can also hear her fear, in the high phrase around the Eb5, the upper end of the contralto head voice (not counting the upper extension posses by many of the great contralti). Her fear turns into resignation at the end of her phrase as the music moves gradually to the E4, the lower end of the head voice.
After a couple of bars with which to adjust the registers, Death enters on a D4, which is to be sung in either the middle or chest registers. I believe it is better to sing it in the mid-register, as the warm, velvety timbre of the contralto mid-register is the perfect vehicle to express Death’s attempt to comfort the Maiden.
The final phrase sees the singer move from the mid to chest register on the final word, “schlafen” (sleep), with a cadence from A3 to D3. The register change displays both the preternatural strength in Death’s “Armen” (arms) and the final command the Maiden hears, and the life leaves her physical body.
This is one of the best songs for the contralto voice, and can also be useful to young contraltos, or those just starting to sing classical music, as the registration changes allow the singer to understand the fell of the different “voices”, their sounds, qualities and character. There are other songs and arias which do this, but this is also one of the simplest, requiring the singer to concentrate on phrasing, breath control and characterisation, and the simple necessity of conveying to the audience the meaning of the text.
For a copy of the score, click here.
Below are are few contraltos singing the aria: