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FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, D. 804, Op. 29 (“Rosamunde”)


Schubert wrote his first string quartets—seven or eight of them not counting lost or incomplete works—between 1812 and 1814 while he was a student at the Kaiserlich-königliches Stadtkonvikt (Imperial and Royal City College), Vienna’s principal boarding school for non-aristocrats. Already an excellent violinist and pianist, Schubert had begun playing viola in his family’s string quartet from about 1811 on during school vacations—with his brothers Ignaz and Franz on violin and his father on cello. Then, between 1814 and 1816, during his so-called “song years,” he wrote only three more quartets, followed by a hiatus of four years until he began writing a string quartet in C minor. He abandoned this work after writing just one movement, known as the Quartettsatz, and a few bars of a slow movement. Finally, in the spring of 1824 he took up quartet writing again with the A minor Quartet, which along with his next quartet in D minor, “Death and the Maiden,” are some of the best in the repertoire.

Two events impacted Schubert’s writing of the A minor Quartet, which he completed very quickly in February and March 1824. One was that he met violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, who led the quartet that had premiered Beethoven’s recent quartets. When the Schuppanzigh Quartet premiered the A minor Quartet on March 14 that year, it was the first public performance of any of Schubert’s quartets. Dedicated to Schuppanzigh, the work received only minimal though at least not negative notice in the press, and Schubert immediately began composing the D minor Quartet, but that work was not performed until two years later, and he gave up on his idea of writing a third quartet to publish in a set of three. He later did compose the G major Quartet as a separate work, but only the D minor was published during his lifetime—many of his works remined unpublished for decades.

The other life event was his health having taken a turn for the worse. Schubert had contracted syphilis in late 1822, and this recent intensification brought extreme dejection as he realized his time was limited. Surely the poignantly beautiful A minor Quartet shows some of that despair. On March 31, shortly after the premiere of the work, he poured out his misery in a letter to his friend Leopold Kupelweiser:

I find myself to be the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world. Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and who in sheer despair continually makes things worse and worse instead of better; imagine a man, I say, whose most brilliant hopes have perished, to whom the felicity of love and friendship have nothing to offer but pain at best, whom enthusiasm (at least of the stimulating variety) for all things beautiful threatens to forsake, and I ask you, is he not a miserable, unhappy being? “My peace is gone, my heart is sore, I shall find it nevermore.” I might as well sing every day now, for upon retiring to bed each night I hope that I may not wake again, and each morning only recalls yesterday’s grief.

The quote in that letter is from his 1814 song “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” words by Goethe, and it seems more than coincidence that the first movement of the A minor Quartet begins much like the song that deals with Gretchen’s forlorn state—a restless opening accompaniment figure topped by the violin’s lyrical outpouring of the main theme. The repetition of the theme in the major mode does not banish the mood, nor does the major-mode second theme. Schubert’s development section is a masterpiece of thematic and harmonic construction, exploring several minor keys in a dramatic arc, and the recapitulation takes some unexpected harmonic turns, ending in the minor mode.

Schubert borrowed the theme of the slow movement from his incidental music to Wihelm von Chézy’s ill-fated play Rosamunde, Fürstin von Zypern (Rosamunde, princess of Cypress), which closed after only two performances in December 1823. Schubert employs the tender, memorable theme—originally the entrance music for a shepherdess and her flock—not as the subject for variations but for a simple A-B-A-B-coda form in which the coda expressively combines the music of the two sections. Schubert would return to the Rosamunde theme yet again in his B-flat major Impromptu. The characteristic long-short-short rhythm was a favorite with many composers, but it seems especially striking that Beethoven uses it so memorably in the Allegretto of his Seventh Symphony, which Schubert greatly admired.

The Menuetto opens with another self-reminiscence, in this case from his song “Die Götter Griechenland” (The gods of Greece) where it sets Schiller’s words “Schöne Welt, wo bist du?” (Beautiful world, where are you?). It soon swings into a lilting dance rhythm, though still tinged with melancholy. Schubert carries the opening motive into the trio section, which provides major-mode though short-lived contrast.

The finale gives the impression of a rustic peasant dance, though it does not project the kind of exuberance of, say, the last movement of Mendelssohn’s A minor Italian Symphony. Schubert constructed an ingenious sonata-rondo form in which the main theme does not return in complete form as a refrain. Instead the first part returns before the development section and the second part recurs after. The A major tonality of this movement, as customary in Schubert’s hands, is a very fluid affair; he eventually ends solidly in the major home key in some delightful delicacy topped off with two emphatic cadential chords.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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