Franz Schubert’s personal tragedy becomes palpable from the first bars on. The Romantic melancholy does not creep slowly under you skin, no, it hits you like a hammer. Schubert’s inner tension, his disarray – in his letters he is quite straightforward about it – and his String Quartet No. 15 in G minor (D.887) is no less straightforward. It is a brutal piece, just like its predecessor, the quartet “Death and the Maiden.” It is a marvelous piece, just like its predecessor, the quartet “Death and the Maiden.” It is one of my favourites.
This composition, dated June 1826, is the last quartet Schubert ever wrote and like Quartet No. 14, written two years earlier, it is a milestone on his way to his later large-scale symphonies. Schubert condenses the thematic material, abundant enough for a symphony, at the utmost resulting in an expressiveness hitherto unheard of in the field of chamber music. Quartet No. 15 makes a reference to Schubert’s symphonies under formal considerations: the first and last movement have symphonic dimension going far beyond the conventional thinking in terms of chamber music, as the musicologist Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen points out.
Schubert’s music – Vienna’s elite gave it a snub. Schubert’s longing for the love of a woman – he would drown it in drinking orgies and sexual promiscuity. The Romantic obsession with death – Schubert’s syphilis made it a self-fulfilling prophecy and gave it a specific tragical meaning: An incurable infection in real life mocked the composer’s quest for purity and pristiness in the field of music. How could he not despair?
What strikes me again and again is how Schubert’s personal disarray on many occasions did not paralyse his creativity, much to the contrary it unleashed his talent and boosted his productivity. In his Quartet No. 15 you will find striking thematic contradictions that reflect the composer’s contradicting feelings: rage and violence, a longing for tenderness, hysteria bordering madness, at one moment Schubert pities himself, the next moment he laughs at himself. Passion – or is it folly? – permeates this work, and with the exception of Dmitry Shostakovich I know of no other composer being able to bring together such emotional extremes in a harmonic way, to harness the inherently destructive power of such music.
© Charles Thibo
P. S. I apologize for the many typos in the early morning version. The spell-checking expert is currently AWOL. I’ll try to get hold of him during the day and chain back him to that computer.