I love the music of Franz Schubert. From his quaint early efforts at the string quartet to his ultimate, supreme mastery of the quartet form at the end of his too-short life, Schubert never fails to tug at my heartstrings. Like all of the great composers, to my ears, Schubert’s greatness comes from his ability to seemingly effortlessly spin out one great melody after another. Combine this with his underlying harmonic shading that can turn a phrase from faint happiness to deepest pathos in an instant, and his music never fails to fascinate.
Ultimately, the origin of these melodies must be traced to Schubert’s life long devotion to the lieder, or art song. Song cycles such as Die schöne Müllerin, Winterreise, and Schwanengesang, are full of such emotional subtlety and psychological import – both in the vocal and piano parts – that they are indispensable parts of the canon of great Western music. This approach to melody and harmony is carried out in the rest of Schubert’s great works, especially his last three string quartets.
This past Sunday, the Arnica Quartet played our annual concert in Astoria. The first half was concerned with Purcell and Britten (his Second Quartet), and the second half was entirely devoted to Schubert’s sprawling final quartet masterpiece, the G major quartet, D. 887, Op. 161. There are so many great moments in this quartet, but the one that I’d like to share with you that has always deeply touched my heart comes right at the beginning of the development section of the first movement.
Music theory geekery alert!
In classical sonata-allegro form, a movement has three major sections: exposition, development, and recapitulation. In the exposition, the composer generally presents two major thematic groups, sometimes with a slow introduction preceding. This leads, more or less, to the key of the dominant – which is a major chord built on the fifth note of the scale that the piece is largely built upon. The development then takes the themes presented in the exposition, and essentially creates a mash up of those ideas – changing keys, turning themes upside down, interrupting one theme with another, and generally just putting things in the VitaMix and throwing the switch. This section generally then leads back, through some interesting and inventive (if the composer is good) key modulations to the tonic (the first note of the scale), ushering in the recapitulation, where we once again revisit the material of the exposition largely as presented before, but with a coda (Italian for ‘tail’) added on to the end.
So, with that bit of exposition out of the way, the heavenly and sublime bit of music that I’m going to introduce you to takes place at the end of the exposition of the quartet. We’ve heard an introduction that harkens back to Schubert’s great Cello Quintet in C major, with its bare triads in the upper three strings, bereft of a supporting bass line in the cello – thus sounding transitory and somewhat tentative, unmoored, crescendoing into a bold dotted rhythm. Then, tremolo! Bruckner! The most tender lieder melody you can imagine, based upon that dotted, marching rhythm we’ve just heard in the introduction. This goes on for six minutes or so – which with the repeat observed makes for an exposition that lasts for 12 minutes – longer than many entire quartet movements by Mozart or Haydn, for example, or entire early Schubert quartets! And so, we’ve heard this amazing, organic, intellectually rigorous, and emotionally involving exposition for twelve minutes. It would seem that Schubert has his work cut out for him. What will he do now? The music builds to a furious climax with scrubbing, triplet figures that evaporate into the depths of the cello line – the quartet is wandering, feeling its way through the dark. Then: light! The first violin and viola enter into something that I can only describe as communion – a delicate intertwining of souls that opens that mysterious door for which only music and the other great arts can provide the key – the door to the divine realm into which we have only the slightest insight. I get chills every time I hear or play this section, and sometimes the room even gets a bit dusty for my eyes, on occasion. Please avail yourself of a recording of this titanic masterpiece – it’s a must-listen for any lover of Schubert and of string quartets.
I have a few recordings to recommend:
- Artemis Quartet: Schubert String Quartets Nos. 13, 14, and 15.
- Belcea Quartet: Schubert String Quintet and Quartets 14 and 15.
- Guarneri Quartet: Schubert Late String Quartets.
And here’s a video of the first movement by the wonderful Belcea Quartet (who, if you’re not yet familiar with them, have recorded the complete quartets of Bartók, Britten, and Beethoven, all performed exquisitely):