Love and Death Reflected by a Young Singer

Scary morning. © Charles Thibo

Schubert. An early work. The composer’s first string quartet ever! Interesting dynamics, changing keys, a main theme developed in several steps – a young man is searching his way to express himself, not afraid to make errors, keen to try stuff that’s not in the books. If Franz Schubert’s String Quartet No. 1 (D 18) lacks thematic coherence, it has an abundance of surprises and remarkable Romantic passages.

I love to listen to this piece early in the morning, when it’s pitch-dark, when I’m driving to work. It’s scary! It’s beautiful! Franz Schubert wrote it during the second half of the year 1810. He was 13 years old. What could a young child know about the tragedies of human life? What could Schubert possibly know about human passion? He knew enough about it by reading books – the poetry of Goethe and Schiller – to conceive what love and death could mean for him.

Schubert was fantasizing, playing around with notes to see what came out of it. What could he express? How could he express it? Which techniques would he pursue, which would he disregard in later works? This is what the piece is about: ein Gesellenstück, an apprentice’s piece. There are glitches, and how could it be different?

The introduction of the first of the four movements sounds like a morning prayer, quickly interrupted by a dramatic passage. Reprise. The prayer starts anew. A fast-paced melody appears out of the blue, building up tension, the main theme takes its shape – a work in progress with elements that Schubert will further develop over the years until they will have become his distinctive signature in the field of chamber music. I find it fascinating to dissect such an early word and compare it to his more mature string quartets. So different, so similar. Striking!

The second movement starts on a lyric melody, radically opposed to what we have heard before. The violin is dominant, sketching a merry Lied, while the viol and the cello remain very much in the background. At the time Schubert wrote the quartet, he had already set to music several poems, and the complementarity of discant and bass voices was no unknown territory to him. He was a mezzo-soprano singer at the Imperial Hofkapelle, led by Antonio Salieri, and he had taken figured bass* and counterpoint* classes.

The third movement is balanced differently, the different instruments share the burden (the pleasure?), a meditation. The finale takes up the nervous melody form the first movement, but it quickly evolves into something different – presto, but to what end? Schubert leaves it in the dark. Perhaps there never was a purpose beside trying out the combination of these specific notes.

Schubert’s first string quartet has been recorded by the Melos Quartett.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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