Imagine a late summer afternoon in the hills of Nussdorf, in the vineyard north-west of Vienna at the turn of the 19th century. The countryside is peaceful, it is warm, the birds are silent, few people are to be seen, and all you can hear is the light breeze ruffling the leaves of the vines. In a few days, the winegrowers and their workers will start the harvest. A silent tension lies in the air, at the same time the green rolling hills exude comfort. Can you picture that? Good.
I imagined this scene while I was listening to the first bars of Arnold Schönberg’s String Quartet in D Major. It has no opus number, but it was written in 1897. The premiere took place a year later in Vienna, performed by the Fitzner Quartet, one of the best known chamber music ensembles of the time. 1897 was the year when the Secession was founded, a group of fin de siècle artists in Vienna, whose best know representative is Gustav Klimt. 1897 was the year that the Great Wheel at the Prater in Wien was inaugurated. A time of creativity, a time of rebellion, a time of progress. But this would only become apparent retrospectively.
Now take this quartet in D major. It begins pretty harmlessly with a rather traditional first movement. Lyrical, optimistic, late Romantic style, fine. The same is valid for the second movement. Schönberg’s idols at the time were Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner. The third movement however – Schönberg called it Variations – breaks away from the familiar musical language. Dissonant elements appear, close to those that Beethoven and Schubert employed to mark contrasts, swings of the mood or a growing tension. It has a taste of – secession. The last movement seems to be about conciliating the (relative) extremes explored before. The revolution will be for a later time.
When Schönberg wrote this quartet, he was 23 years old. The Fitzner Quartet was so impressed that the musicians made it part of their regular repertoire, and the Viennese music critic Max Graf remarked: “One should memorize [t]his [man’s] name: He is called Arnold Schönberg.” For a Viennese music critic this counts as an exuberant appraisal. Brahms was equally impressed, he even offered Schönberg financial support, alas Brahms died that very year. The quartet was Schönberg’s first large composition, it was however mostly forgotten after the first performances. Schönberg would soon break new ground by leaving behind tonality and taking classical music into a new era. And from then on, hehas been judged by his revolutionary potential, not by his Romantic roots.
The String Quartet in D Major has been recorded by the Leipziger Streichquartett.
© Charles Thibo