Founded in 1989, the Quatuor Alcan of the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean Symphony Orchestra has earned the enviable reputation of being the best Canadian ensemble of its kind since the advent of the Orford [...]
Schubert: String quartet No.8, Op. 168 in B major; String quartet no.14 in D minor 'Death and the Maiden'
They spoke about it
One characteristic of Franz Schubert‘s (1797-1828) chamber music is its gradual stylistic development, in contrast to Haydn’s or Beethoven’s, whose styles each underwent more sudden changes.
From the outset, Schubert’s works in this genre—composed for domestic performances centered around the family quartet (his brothers Ferdinand and Ignaz on violins, himself on viola and his father on cello)—already contain in essence an individuality that will ripen and take shape over the years, up until the last quartets and the Quintet, D. 956, which were never publicly performed during Schubert’s lifetime.
Despite the influences, borrowings and sometimes even the clumsiness of Schubert’s first extant quartets (composed, admittedly, when he was only 15 and 16 years old), one finds in them those inimitable melodies, swift shifts between major and minor, and sensitive harmonic modulations that make these works as Schubertian as the later ones. Incidentally, it is remarkable how rapidly, albeit gradually, Schubert’s art matured—if one can decently speak of ‘maturity’ in a man whose creative path was so abruptly cut short at the age of 31.
In 1814, though, Schubert was not thinking about death, but rather of his art and his career. He was hoping above all to escape the narrow path set forth by his father, which was to lead him to the teaching profession. To achieve this, he attempted what he thought was the quickest route to success, and set himself to composing an opera, Des Teufels Lustschloss, completed in October 1814.
This was to no avail, as the work was to remain unperformed. However, he had better luck with his first complete Mass, in F major, finished during the summer of that year, and performed twice that October.
Quartet in B flat, D. 112
Although he was quite occupied with these vocal works, Schubert did find the time—and he needed little of it—to compose his Quartet in B flat, D. 112. He had started work on the first movement on September 5 and finished it on the same day, “in 4 1/2 hours”, as he noted at the bottom of the score. Schubert, it is true, had begun this movement as a Trio, which must have simplified his task when he set to work on the Quartet; yet it is extraordinary to witness him able to “compose as fast as he can copy”, as Alfred Einstein puts it in his book on Schubert.
In the short development section of this Allegro ma non troppo, there is a striking example of that which was mentioned above, where each phrase in the major is immediately repeated in the minor. Written from the 6th to the 10th of September, the Andante sostenuto, in G minor, permeates the air with a clouded serenity that a few happy moments cannot dissipate. Here, one recognizes certain echoes from the slow movements of Mozart’s ‘Dissonance’, K. 465 and ‘Hoffmeister’, K. 499 quartets. The Menuetto that follows was completed in one day, on September 11; its Trio, in recalling the first movement and somewhat announcing the last, makes for a valuable unifying element.
In fact, the entire quartet has a certain sameness of tone, that sort of slightly somber tranquillity from the second movement, which hints to Schubert’s serious approach to the work. The final Presto, finished on September 13, tries as best it can to shed that heavy cloak by its spirited and brisk composure. Remarkably, it also anticipates certain elements of his ‘Great’ C major Symphony.
Quartet in D minor, D. 810, known as ‘Death and the Maiden’
This quartet was published only in 1863. Everything that was germinating in the Quartet, D. 112 blossoms to the fullest in the Quartet in D minor, D. 810, known as ‘Death and the Maiden’. Composed in 1824 (and possibly ended in 1826), the quartet’s title comes from its second movement, a series of variations, constructed on a theme from the piano introduction to Schubert’s eponymous lied, dated February 1817.
The theme as used in the quartet movement is a kind of moderate funeral march, devoid of pathos; it is in G minor, yet ends consolingly in G major. In the five variations that follow, as well as in the coda, the key remains unchanged, and the theme is always recognizable in passing from one instrument to another. The first violin part, in most of the movement, takes on the marvelous role of casting shimmering light on the theme’s various shades. The glimpse of hope at the end of the theme takes life in the fourth, G major, variation, but it positively redeems us at the movement’s closing. If this Andante con moto is truly the core of the work, the movements that surround it are no less splendid.
All four are bound together by strong rhythmical ties, and the quartet’s vigorous character is heralded straight from the unforgettable opening bars. The sheer strength of this Allegro’s construction and handling of motives is such, that it seems to infect both the Scherzo and the final Presto. The structure of the work is complete when to these strong pillars are joined the more lithesome sections, such as the first movement’s second theme, the third’s Trio section, and of course, the entire second movement. Bygone now was the time when the Schubert family would get together to play Franz’s quartets.
The D minor Quartet, like so many of Schubert’s works, was never publicly performed in his lifetime, but did receive a private performance by Ignaz Schuppanzigh’s quartet (Beethoven’s ‘official’ quartet) in 1826. A rather sad account of this reading has come down to us, as told in 1881 by an eyewitness, the composer and conductor Franz Lachner: “The first violin Schuppanzigh, who, by reason of his great age was admittedly not equal to such a task, declared to the composer after playing it through, ‘My dear fellow, this is no good, leave it alone; you stick to your songs!’ whereupon Schubert silently packed up the sheets of music and shut them away in his desk forever […]” The facts as related here might well be somewhat obscured by the cataracts of time, but it remains that the work was not published until 1831, after Schubert’s death.
© Jacques-André Houle