Suddenly my mind was clear like a crystal. From one second to the next I felt like I could penetrate any mystery of the world and solve it. That of course is an illusion, but I felt an enthusiasm for intellectual challenges that I had missed in the days and hours preceding this moment. It started with a post I wrote, the one about Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 20 in A major. I felt energized, wide awake even though it was just past midnight.
I had just started to read Thomas Mann’s essay “Ansichten eines Unpolitischen” (Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man). Now, reading Mann is a challenge per se, but this voluminous essay on his intellectual position on World War I was an appalling read. A fierce defense of German militarism, born out of a sense of Germany being culturally different from the rest of Europe, spiced according to a formula directly borrowed from German Romanticism: the obsession with death and heroism. Nonetheless I felt up to it, and listening to Schubert’s spring quartets seemed to sharpen my mind. Among these was the very early String Quartet No. 2 in C major, D. 32.
The quartet, written in 1812, is the second Schubert wrote and it shows how the young composer gradually fused what he had learnt from his composition classes – the legacy of Joseph Haydn in this specific case – with his own creative ideas. The foundation of the quartet in C major is a single theme, that is repeated several times with gradual variations, the additional secondary theme giving the piece its traditional sonata* structure.
Schubert’s creative mind made the field of harmony his playground. At the first glance, his early string quartets do not seem to follow any harmonic rules, at least not those cast in iron in the Vienna classics era. However as the scholar Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen points out, each change in harmony mirrors a thematic change. It was a time of experimentation for the young composer, and since these works are seldom heard in public, it is worth listening to them on that fabulous recording by the Melos Quartet.
Albert Stadler, a friend of the 15-year-old Schubert who studied at the same school as the composer, noted in 1812 the composer’s serenity when he was at work: “Undisturbed by the noise and talking of his comrades at the Konvikt [Schubert’s school] he sat at his little desk, bent over his sheet, biting his quill, occasionally drumming with his fingers, he wrote light-hearted and fluently without many corrections.”
© Charles Thibo