This quartet feels like a good-bye, and I would like to dedicate the post to a certain priest that played a substantial part in the posts of a fellow blogger whose posts I love to read1. The priest has left Ireland and moved on to Italy to do his duty and we, the readers, will miss him. String Quartet No. 13 in A Minor, D.804, was written by Franz Schubert in early 1824 for two violins, viola and cello.
It is the only quartet performed in public during Schubert’s lifetime; the premiere, executed by the quartet led by the violinist and conductor Ignaz Schuppanzigh, took place in March 1824. I heard it yesterday performed by the Julia Fischer Quartett at the Philharmonie de Luxembourg. A recording by the Taneyev Quartet is available at your music store.
“Pain sharpens the mind and fortifies the soul, joy however rarely has this ambition and leads to softness and frivolity”, Schubert wrote in March 1824. “My works come into being through my musical expertise and through the pain I feel; those triggered by pain alone seem to be the least popular.” Since this quartet was an instant success, pain alone could not have been the driving force, despite its melancholic mood. Schubert had been ill while he composed the quartet – once more. The writer Gernot Gruber however refuses to see here cause and effect as Schubert’s psyche and the way he worked was much more complex. Roughly at the same time, Schubert composed the Octet in F major (D.803), a work that Robert Markow, writer of programe notes for the Montreal Symphony, describes as “of genial spirit and sunny disposition”. Romantic Weltschmerz* may well have been the underlying form of pain that explains the nature of this music.
The musicologist Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen considers this quartet Schubert’s first accomplished piece of this ambitious genre. Schubert demonstrated that he mastered this challenge despite an inherent dilemma: How to reconcile Schubert’s personal hallmark of lyricism so richly exemplified by his many Lieder (songs), with the formal requirements of a string quartet valid since the times of Joseph Haydn i.e. the economy of means to structure the main and auxiliary themes and the breaking up of a musical phrase into a main voice and an accompaniment?
In his later quartets, Schubert would disregard these formal restrictions, but for the time being he satisfied those requirements. In the first movement he introduces the main theme, a sweeping melody inspired from his song “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (D.118), which he then exposes, develops and recapitulates in the “classical” sonata way. It gives the movement dynamic and intensity, contrasting brutally with what follows, the second movement. Here Schubert uses the shortened sonata form; the main theme, inspired by a ballet of Schubert’s incidental music “Rosamunde” (D.797), is introduced, exposed and, without an explicit development, indirectly developed in the recapitulation, in a condensed way and through the use of contrapuntal* technique. The parallels between this movement and the ballet music gave the quartet the nickname “Rosamunde” though the two have only a very small phrase in common.
The main theme of the third movement is derived from Schubert’s setting into music of the line “Schöne Welt, wo bist du?” (Beautiful world, where are you?) from a poem by Friedrich Schiller. He also uses elements of a popular dance (Ländler), joyful from its conception, but shrouded in a dark veil by the composer. The finale mirrors the formal structure of the second movement, and it is only in this allegro moderato that Schubert emerges from the overall gloomy mood of the quartet.
My feeling was that Julia Fischer’s ensemble was much more at ease with Schubert than with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Quartet No. 10 in E-flat Major (Op. 74) and Leos Janacek’s Quartet No. 1, that preceded Schubert’s work. Julia Fischer appeared very tense throughout the evening which unfortunately reverberated through her performance during the first part of the concert. The violist Nils Mönkemeyer however seemed to deeply enjoy the night, and it was a pleasure to watch and hear him. The Julia Fischer Quartet performed Schubert flawlessly and the expressiveness of Schubert’s compositions always made me shiver. At the same time, this specific quartet has a number of ironic moments that easily compensate for its general gloominess. I am glad I came, because nothing beats a live performance. Despite occasional glitches.
© Charles Thibo
1 This story has experienced an interesting twist by June 2019. The blogger was identified as an impostor with parts of her biography being fabrications and some of the events in her posts being inventions too. Many of her characters – the priest? – seem to have been fiction too. The blog has been deleted since. It was with sadness that I saw a gifted story-teller succumb to its ambition and its lies. Fare well, Mademoiselle Read on.