Where to begin? With the incredibly sad introduction of the first movement? With the death of the composer’s mother? With the inexplicable lightness and dynamics of the last two movements, so diametrically opposed to the introduction? In March 1813, Franz Schubert wrote one of his very first string quartets, String Quartet No. 4 in C major, D.46. C major is often associated with a joyous or solemn mood, but this first movement has no joy and no solemnity, it exudes darkness, fear and heaviness, a broken soul, a wretched state of mind, the few glimmers of light appear like pure cynicism.
The quartet has a singular, disturbing effect on me. I don’t quite know how to qualify it. Confusing? Fascinating? Depressive? Rousing? All of the above. Schubert’s brutal emotional shifts seem to suggest that he did not quite know himself what he really felt. Conflicting emotions are not unheard of with respect to young men. He was 16 years old, he had just lost his mother. Probably a difficult moment. At the same time he had taken up composition lessons with Antonio Salieri, and while he was composing for the family quartet and he was beginning to discover the expressive range of the quartet once he ventured beyond the limits of his lessons with Salieri. A time marked by the young composer’s rapid musical progress and his exhilaration to break new ground.
The musicologist Peter Gülke considers this composition a milestone in Schubert’s development and points out to “the systematic use of chromatic leaps of the fourth that [Schubert uses] in the slow introduction as if he would quote from Mozart’s “Dissonant Quartet” (KV 465). Schubert’s piece is closer to Arnold Schönberg’s chamber music than to Vienna masters. Schubert wrote the quartet in just five days and it testifies to both his coherent thematic ideas and his courage to explore new sound spaces.
The quartet has been recorded by – you know this by now – the wonderful Melos Quartett. I can’t praise their recordings of Schubert’s quartets enough. I can’t. And in case you wonder where I took that picture – it’s the Bay of Mont-Saint-Michel on the French Atlantic coast after a summer sunset. Eery like Schubert’s music. I love it.
© Charles Thibo