Program Notes by Rhys Samuel
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Schubert completed the A Minor Quartet in 1824 after a long period of hospitalization and an eight-year lapse since his previous quartet of 1816.
The quartet is a work of melodic beauty throughout and the only quartet to appear in print during his lifetime. Schubert borrowed freely from his earlier works, and each of the four movements has music that connects outside the quartet.
As bright and inspiring as this quartet is, it masks the unhappy world of its creator. Seriously ill with syphilis that would kill him at age 31, Schubert was also short of money. Many of his string and stage works, plus operatic compositions, were not performed, and other works, including nearly all his string quartets, could not find a publisher.
Schubert best expressed his despair in a letter to his friend Leopold Kupelwieser: “My peace is gone, my heart is heavy; never but never again shall I find peace.” This personal line was not original with Schubert; it came from “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel), a poem that was part of Goethe’s Faust. Schubert had set these lines to music in a song he composed in 1814 (D.118).
From this cauldron of misery Schubert created a beautiful quartet that belied the dark forces churning beneath the surface. The clues lie hidden in his musical borrowings and their poetic lines beginning with the first movement.
The opening Allegro measures of the A Minor Quartet are reminiscent of Gretchen’s song. In particular, the solemn opening created by a wandering violin theme that floats over an undertow supplied by the viola and cello is the same form of accompaniment that Schubert used in his song. A second theme emerges and all is developed through magical key modulations. The movement ends with a repeat of the melancholy opening theme.
For the Andante second movement Schubert used the music from his opera Rosamunde as the main theme, and this popular music eventually identified the Quartet as the “Rosamunde”. Schubert was to borrow this music once again for his Impromptu for Piano, D.935.
The Menuetto third movement opens with a dark three-note theme from the cello reflecting the opening mood of the first movement. Here Schubert borrows from an earlier song, D.677, “Die Gotter Griechenlands’ (The Greek Gods) based on some dolorous lines from Schiller – a lament for the lost years of youth. But this melancholy yields to a warming Landler, a type of slow waltz originating in Austria. A brief trio elaborates the opening theme until the Menuetto is repeated.
The Allegro Moderato finale is a bright redeeming movement in A Major having its roots in country dances. With a hint of gypsy influences, the music tantalizes with rhythmic twists and turns that purge the lurking darkness of what has gone before. We are left with what many consider Schubert’s finest quartet.
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Of the many great composers who claimed Vienna as their home, Franz Schubert was the only one actually born in that city. Of 14 children, Franz was one of five who survived in a household ringing with music and voices. His schoolmaster father held music classes in his home, where he taught violin and viola to Franz; an older brother taught him to play the piano.
In his short life of 32 years, Schubert composed more than 1000 pieces, including 19 string quartets. Of these, three are lost and four are incomplete. The Quartettsatz (quartet movement) was composed in 1820 when he was 23. Why Schubert abandoned the work is unknown, but it most certainly was the first movement for a grand quartet. He completed an additional 41 bars for a second movement, and there the effort ceased. But the Quartettsatz, like his B Minor (“Unfinished” Symphony, survives as an enduring work of art.
The Allegro assai opens with repeated-note figures from the first violin. The theme is taken by the other players to a rapid climax, and is quietly continued until the first violin introduces a second lyrical motif followed by a rocking rhythm from the second violin and viola. The viola and cello change the mood with tense measures as the first violin repeatedly sweeps up the scale. Schubert brings in yet another subject while the original theme is carried by the viola and cello. The exposition ends as the cello echoes the opening motif and the other instruments reflect the closing theme.
The brief development section opens with strong outbursts based on the opening theme, which is woven into melodic strands. The recapitulation repeats all the themes except the first, which Schubert saves for the final measures of the short concluding coda.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Brahms completed the B Flat Quartet in 1875 at a carefree retreat near Heidelberg, a place well insulated from the challenges of Viennese society and professional pressures. Much of his happy detachment and his love of nature are reflected in this quartet. Brahms, however, described it as one of several “useless trifles” – a”trifle” that he later admitted was a favorite work.
Brahms completed three string quartets between 1850 and 1875 . after having made endless changes in all three. The first , in C Minor, took nearly 23 years to complete amid misgivings and fears of rejection. Brahms described its release as a “forceps delivery”. His second quartet, in A Minor, followed a similar course but emerged as a masterful treatment of the canon.
The B Flat Quartet is often described as the finest of the three pieces. Reflecting a cheerfulness and gaiety that begin in the first movement. It opens with a “hunting horn” theme which Brahms embellishes with accents on the third and sixth notes of the six-note groups.
After a repeat of the horn subject the violins repeat their emphasis on the third and sixth notes before introducing a jaunty second theme. The remainder of the movement treats the rhythmic material to playful interaction within the melody in 2/4 and 6/8 meter.
The second movement opens in a serene mood as the first violin leads with a lyrical theme that is interrupted by strong contrasting chords. The opening melody returns romantically enriched before the movement fades to a quiet close.
Brahms’ designation of the third movement as “Agitato” (agitated) contrasts with his statement that it was “the tenderest and most impassioned movement I have ever written.” Indeed, Brahms use of muted violins and cello combine with a haunting theme to create both a tender and impassioned movement.
The fourth movement consists primarily of a theme and eight variations. The theme is derived from the opening horn call of the first movement, and reappears in the seventh variation. Brahms combines the themes from the fourth and first movements with considerable interplay to conclude the quartet.
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Brahms on composing:
“It is not hard to compose, but what is fabulously hard is to leave the superfluous notes under the table.”