On intimacy, talent and hard choices

A stroll at dawn. © Charles Thibo

Intimacy – over the past weeks, I have come across this word several times while reading up on different pieces of chamber music; these posts are scheduled for later this autumn. Intimacy. How can a piece be intimate? And for whom? The musician? The audience? The atmosphere in a concert hall is hardly intimate. Even if it has a room dedicated to chamber music or recitals, it remains a public arena with clearly segregated roles: the audience, passive except for the clapping and coughing, and the musicians, active, absorbed by their performance. No intimacy here. A bond is formed through the music at best, but no personal, emotionally defined interaction between audience and performers will take place unless the performers are really bad.

From my personal experience, I get a better, intimate if you want, understanding of the composer’s emotional world, when I practice a piece from a composer whose biography I know well (Pyotr Tchaikovsky). The piece itself however does not necessarily feel intimate.   Intimacy is about sharing. I don’t share when I practice.    I focus, I learn and I enjoy. But I don’t share.

Many pieces of chamber music were conceived to be played by the composer and his friends (Franz Schubert) or the composer and his patron’s musicians (Joseph Haydn). Intimacy could develop among the musicians while rehearsing, in the absence of any audience. Once the chatting, clapping and coughing set in, the intimacy was necessarily gone. Nevertheless authors of liner notes and publishers insist on labeling certain pieces as intimate, which seems to be no more than a clever marketing trick.

Schubert and his friends

As I mentioned, Franz Schubert wrote many pieces never published during his lifetime and written essentially for his circle of close friends whom he regularly met in Vienna. He sought advice, inspiration, encouragement – the atmosphere was intimate even without any music being performed. Today I would like to focus on an early work: Schubert’s String Quartet No. 6 in D major, D. 74. He wrote it between August and September 1813; it was published as late as 1897.

During that summer Schubert had an important decision to take: Should he pursue his studies at the Stadtkonvikt – the boarding school had offered him a scholarship on the condition that he bring his academic subjects up to standard, “since singing and music are but a subsidiary matter” – or should he become a teacher like his father and his brothers? He chose the latter option, sensing that it would give him more free time to compose. He was 16 year old, he had already composed several songs and pieces of chamber music.

Meet Josef von Spaun

By that time he had met  a law student named Josef von Spaun who would become a very close and lifelong friend. Spaun had founded the orchestra of the Stadtkonvikt and led the second violins’ section. Through him Schubert became acquainted with the works of Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. The orchestra would rehearse these pieces and Oxford Music Online notes that “…according to Spaun, Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor and Beethoven’s Second Symphony made a particularly strong impression on Schubert”.

On the title page of String Quartet No. 6 Schubert had written down a dedications written: “Trois Quatuors pour deux Violons, Viole et Violoncelle composés par François Schubert écolier de Msr. De Salieri.” Although Schubert left the Stadtkonvikt in June of 1813, he continued to receive private lessons by the famous opera composer Antonio Salieri. Salieri must have examined this work because he added in his title in his own handwriting: “Maître de chapelle de la cour imp et Royale de Vienne”. Vanitas vanitatis…

I don’t know what Salieri thought of this piece. Did he approve it? I can track down the influence of Haydn in Schubert’s melodic lines, but Schubert must have known at the age of 16 already that he had a message to transmit: the feeling of being torn between everyday duties i.e. gaining money to survive and the calling to a higher duty, his artistic perfection, l’art pour l’art. The quartet is pleasant enough to the ear, but it anticipates already Schubert’s striking individuality and the deep emotional expressiveness that would mark his later quartets.

The German Melos Quartett (1965-2005) has recorded all of Schubert’s quartets and I strongly recommend purchasing the album as I will return to Schubert’s quartets many more times.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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