Franz Peter Schubert - Life and Music

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Franz Schubert - String Quartets

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Schubert began composing string quartets when he was thirteen, initially to play with his family. Like himself, his two brothers were accomplished, though far from virtuoso, violinists, his father played the cello competently, and Schubert for purposes of the family quartet regularly took the viola part.

His earliest quartets, of course, are far from major works but it is fascinating to see the development of various features which were later to typify his quartets, such as his fondness for tremolo (the shivering effect of single notes rapidly repeated) and his almost obsessive fascination with wide-ranging and surprising key relationships.

Another interesting feature of the early quartets, especially since he later abandoned it, is the establishment of clear thematic links between movements or indeed within them, be it a rhythmic figure or the contour of a melody or a combination of the two.

The most interesting aspect of all, however, is the continuous process of experimentation and discovery evident throughout these ‘prentice’ works. Each quartet explores new territory. Since Schubert was certainly familiar with many of the quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, his unconventional forays into previously uncharted waters can hardly be put down to ignorance. Self-confidence he never lacked, but it took him some time to find his own true voice, which he did, where the string quartets are concerned, at the hardly advanced age of sixteen. His first String Quartet, D 18, in 'mixed keys' was written in 1810 and it was followed by 14 more string quartets, with the last coming in 1826, two years before his early death.

String Quartet in C, D. 46

Each of the four quartets to have survived from 1813 has remarkable and intriguing features, but only perhaps with the Quartet in C (D. 46), do we sense the hand of a true master-in-the-making, a totally integrated personality; only here do we get the exciting sense of a genius about to burst into full bloom (which happened, with the song Gretchen am Spinnrade, D. 118, less than a year later). Nothing in this quartet suggests a student at work. In technique, tone, organic development, dramatic pacing and emotional depth, this is a work of authentic mastery. Also notable is that we already find Schubert using C major, normally a key with bright, ceremonial, connotations, as the basis for a work of real seriousness, depth and dramatic force.

Quartettsatz in C minor D. 703



String Quartet in C minor, D. 703


The big breakthrough in his quartet writing, however, came three years later, in 1820, with the first movement of a Quartet in C minor. This driving Quartet is justly famous for inaugurating Schubert's maturity as a chamber music composer. For some reason this extraordinary masterpiece is universally known as the ‘Quartettsatz’, which is German for ‘quartet movement’.

In this uniquely intense and dramatic movement, positively frightening in its combination of outward order and inner turbulence, Schubert created what is to all intents and purposes a flawless work of art.

The quality of the thematic material is remarkable in itself, but the way it grows, develops and procreates, carrying the listener’s emotions with it every step of the way, is little short of miraculous. The work was first published in 1870, fifty years after its composition.


String Quartet in A minor, D. 804


Three years elapsed before Schubert returned to the medium, now inspired not by the family quartet but by that of Ignaz Schuppanzigh, a distinguished violinist whose quartet was the finest of its time. The Quartet in A minor (D. 804), also known as 'Rosamunde', is one of those rare works that let us know from the very opening that we are in the presence of a masterpiece. Even before the first violin enters with the terrible poignancy of the lonely main theme, the haunting, sorrowful mood has been set. The listener is immediately cast in the role of eavesdropper. To be privy to such private sorrow, to such extreme intimacy of expression, seems almost unpardonably intrusive – but Schubert’s subtlety and complexity of character ensure that nothing stays unequivocal for long. Hardly has the theme entered than it begins to be transformed, and we find ourselves in that uniquely Schubertian realm of emotional ambivalence and ambiguity, in which the music seems at once to be smiling through tears, or even weeping while laughing, in which the privilege of living transcends the power of suffering to the point of an uncomprehending and incongruous joy.

String Quartet in D minor, D. 810

The second of the three works which brought Schubert’s quartet writing to its climax and apotheosis, is the Quartet in D minor. The so-called ‘Death and the Maiden’, a nickname derived from his famous song Der Tod und das Mädchen, which provides the theme for the slow movement and its five variations. The darkness, intensity and seriousness of the work as a whole is evident from its very beginning: a fierce opening salvo.

This is immediately succeeded by a tense silence, which is broken by another salvo, still more strident and grim than the first. After another silence, the triplet rhythm is taken up and developed, now very softly, even tentatively, and here again the punctuating silences are at least as important as the notes around them, a distinctively Schubertian feature.

This answering phrase takes the Beethovenian motto rhythm and weaves it into a long phrase, whose seamless, uninterruptible continuity is as striking in its sinuous integrity as the opening is for its fragmentation. Elements of gentle lyricism, both poignant and sweet, now mix with the aggressive, driving force of the opening motto rhythm. Once again, as in the A minor Quartet, we find several outwardly states of mind and feeling being simultaneously combined. This is not just a simultaneity of contrasting and opposing feelings: the actual themes that give them voice are superimposed on one another. This standard, with minor fluctuations, permeates the entire work.


String Quartet in G, D. 887


For some reason the Quartet in G (D. 887), the most adventurous and wide-ranging of them all, remains the least known. The influence of Beethoven is pervasive and the finale is even redolent of Rossini. Ironically, this most unjustly neglected of Schubert’s quartets is also his most masterly.


Overview of Schubert's String Quartets:


String Quartet No.1, D. 18
String Quartet No.2, D. 32
String Quartet No.3, D. 36
String Quartet No.4, D. 46
String Quartet No.5, D. 68
String Quartet No.6, D. 74
Minuet in D, D. 86
String Quartet No.10, D. 87
String Quartet No.7, D. 94
String Quartet No.8, D. 112
String Quartet No.9, D. 173
String Quartet No.11 in E, D. 353
String Quartet No.12 in C minor, D. 703 (Quartettsatz)
String Quartet No.13 in A minor, D. 804 ('Rosamunde')
String Quartet No.14 in D minor, D. 810 ('Death and the Maiden')
String Quartet No.15 in G, D. 887

String Quartet Death and The Maiden D. 810 (I)

String Quartet Death and The Maiden D. 810 (II)

Manuscript of 'Death and The Maiden'

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