SCHUBERT: String Quartets
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Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Quartettsatz in C minor, D.103 • String Quartet No.5 in B flat major, D.68
String Trio in B flat major, D.471 • Five Minuets, D.89 • Overture in C minor, D.8
Franz Schubert was born in 1797, the son of a Vienna schoolmaster, and had his education as a chorister of the Imperial Chapel at the Staatskonvikt. Both at school and at home he had an active musical life as a player and as a composer, and when his voice broke and he was offered the means to continue his academic education, he decided, instead, to train as a teacher, thus being able to devote more time to music. By the age of eighteen he had joined his father in the schoolroom, while continuing to compose and to study with the old Court Kapellmeister Antonio Salieri. In 1816 he moved away from home, lodging with his new friend, Franz von Schober, thus released for the moment from the drudgery of teaching. The following years found him generally in the company of friends, with an occasional return to the schoolroom, when necessity dictated, showing there no great talent or interest in his task.
Schubert's brief career continued in Vienna and while there were occasional commissions and some of his works were published, there was never the opportunity for the kind of distinguished patronage that Beethoven had had and still enjoyed, nor the possibility of an official position in the musical establishment of the city. It was February 1828 before Schubert was able to take the risk of a concert devoted to his work, an event that proved both successful and profitable, but by the autumn his health had weakened, the consequence of a venereal infection contracted six years earlier. He died on 19 November.
As a composer Schubert was both precocious and prolific. Over the years he wrote some five hundred songs and a quantity of piano and chamber music, including fifteen string quartets, with larger scale works for the theatre and for orchestra, although he never had a professional orchestra regularly available to him, as Haydn had had by the nature of his employment as a princely Kapellmeister, or as Beethoven had through the good offices of his rich patrons. He was able to hear his orchestral compositions in performances by an ensemble that had developed over the years from the Schubert family string quartet, while chamber music on occasions received professional attention, notably from Schuppanzigh and his colleagues. Schubert himself was both pianist and string-player and as a boy had played the viola in the family quartet, where his father played the cello and his older brothers the violin. The language of the classical string quartet had long been familiar to him.
The Quartet Movement in C minor, D.103, was written in 1814 and seems originally to have formed part of a complete quartet, later mentioned by the composer's brother Ferdinand and apparently then surviving in a manuscript in the hands of the publisher Anton Diabelli. The extant autograph, consisting of only four double pages, later came into the possession of the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, a manuscript that includes an incomplete movement that breaks off at the recapitulation. This was first published in 1939 by Universal, Vienna, and completed by Alfred Orel. 1814, the year of Schubert's enrolment in the Normal School of St Anna to train as a teacher, also brought the composition of String Quartet No. 9 in B flat major, D.112, in September, his setting of Goethe's 'Gretchen am Spinnrade'in October and the beginning of his Symphony No. 2 in December. The Quartettsatz opens with a slow and ominous introduction, leading to a sonata-form movement, its dramatic mood lightened by the second subject.
The third of the five quartets written in 1813, the String Quartet in B flat major, D.68, remains incomplete, consisting of two outer movements. The first of these is dated 8 June and the second 18 August, four days after which Schubert embarked on a further quartet. The first Allegro is dominated by the dotted rhythm of its first subject and has dramatic transitions between this and the second subject, which makes use of the same rhythmic figuration. The other movement is a rondo in the spirit of Haydn and replete with little surprises, when the music breaks off into sudden silences.
Composed in September 1816, when Schubert had moved out of the family home and the class-room to lodge with his new friend Schober and his family, the String Trio in B flat major, K.471, survives as a single movement, with a second movement abandoned by the composer after the first 39 bars. The completed Allegro has considerable charm and is in the expected sonata form, with a repeated exposition and a short central development.
Schubert's Five Minuets and Six Trios, D.89, were written in November 1813 and can be performed either by a string quartet or a larger group of players. Minuet No. 1, in C major, has two trios, the second in C minor. The dramatic Minuet No. 2, in F major, has no trio and is followed by Minuet No. 3, in D minor, which has two trios, the first in F major and the second in the original key, its violin melody accompanied by the plucked notes of the rest of the ensemble. Minuet No. 4, in G major, is without a trio, and the set ends with Minuet No. 5, in C major, framing two trios in the same key, the second underpinned by a rustic drone bass.
The Overture in C minor, D.8, ed. Hess, for five-part string ensemble, a string quintet with two violas, was written in 1811 and published in 1970 by Litolff/Peters. A precociously effective work, it opens with a solemn introduction, leading to an Allegro in which the first subject is announced by the first violin. The A flat major second subject provides the expected lyrical contrast, with the first viola entering in imitation of the first violin. The development of the sonata-form movement has the second viola at first offering a repeated figure in accompaniment and use is made of the secondary theme before the return of the first theme in recapitulation, followed by the second theme, now in G major. A dramatic closing section brings the work to an end.