Breaking free with an experimental string quartet

The blue hour. © Charles Thibo

Who dares nothing, need hope for nothing, the German novelist Friedrich Schiller once said. In 1815, Franz Schubert dared. He was barely 18 years old, he had written  a couple of string quartets since the age of 14 and he decided to write an experimental piece: the String Quartet No. 9 in G minor, D. 173. It is an exceptional piece. Schubert did away with the traditional sonata form of the first movement and tried something new. At the time he was taught by Antonio Salieri. Salieri was Vienna’s reference in the world of composing, while Mozart and Haydn were the references for writing quartets. But Schubert was young and set out to find his own way.

Schubert’s hallmark

If you listen to this piece, magnificently performed by the Melos Quartet for example, it will not strike you as revolutionary. Why is that? Well, almost 200 years after Schubert’s death, we are familiar with the composer’s style. To Schubert’s contemporaries the quartet certainly sounded unorthodox. They were most likely puzzled by its manifold complexity and the challenge its performance presented. Schubert was aware of that. In a later letter he confessed, that his friends should not perform his first works for chamber music, but revert to more experienced composers and play their more mature compositions.

Molto cantabile

Melody is essential in the first movement and this explains why the composer could not maintain the traditional structure of exposition, development and recapitulation of the theme. The melody itself becomes the theme, the centre of the piece, and the traditional sonata form would have broken the melodic flow. Salieri had taught Schubert the importance of what the Germans call Sanglichkeit. Cantability – the keyword when you compose songs, operas or masses. And Schubert was absolutely receptive to this idea. Throughout is career, he composed hundreds of Lieder (songs). Though Salieri would not teach him in composing purely instrumental works, Schubert applied the principle of cantability also in his chamber music, along with the principle of building up and releasing an extreme tonal tension.

This way of composing would become one of Schubert’s hallmarks, and I encourage you to compare this quartet with one that he wrote much later, towards the end of his life: the famous “Death and the Maiden”. You will see that Schubert applied the same principle. He focused on a harmonic sequence that pops up in different variations while the melodic line remains unbroken. I greatly admire Schubert’s ingenuity and his feeling for melodies and I am not afraid of drawing a parallel to Tchaikovsky.

More lessons from Salieri

1815 – the year Napoleon was finally beaten during the battle of Waterloo. The end of the French Empire. The end of political experiments like democratic revolutions and the beginning of the restoration of autocratic rulerships in France, Germany, Russia and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Schubert was unfazed, his creativity had caught fire, he would not be stopped. Because Salieri had taught him another principle: The composer must remain true to himself.

© Charles Thibo

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