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8.550590 - SCHUBERT: String Quartets (Complete), Vol. 1
Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828)
String Quartet in D minor D. 810 ("Death
and the Maiden")
Of the fifteen works Schubert wrote for string quartet, seven were composed while he was at school, a chorister in the Imperial Chapel and a pupil of the Staatskonvikt and five of these during his last year there. Born in Vienna in 1797, the son and nephew of schoolmasters who had moved to the city from Moravia, he had every encouragement to musical activity at home. His father played the cello, his eldest brother Ignaz, born two months after his parents' marriage, the violin, the instrument of Ferdinand, three years Franz Schubert's senior, while the composer played the viola. The family quartet was in later years to be augmented to make possible the playing of works of more ambitious dimensions. At school Schubert played the violin in the school orchestra, which he was later to lead, and was able to embark on lessons from the Court Kapellmeister Antonio Salieri, whose fiftieth year in Vienna he was to join in celebrating in 1816.
In 1812, the year in which his mother died, Schubert's voice broke. The following year brought the re-marriage of his father and the chance of a scholarship to continue his schooling. Schubert chose to reject this, and in 1814 he entered the Normal School of St. Anna to train as a teacher, preparation for a position as assistant to his father. As a teacher, however, he was obviously ineffective, although his year of duty at his father's school certainly allowed him time for composition.
Schubert's subsequent life was spent still largely in Vienna. He shared rooms with various friends, at times returning to his father's house, since family ties remained strong. His circle of friends, strong advocates of his music, included musical amateurs, poets, painters and, among musicians, the singer Michael Vogl, who retired from the Court Opera in 1822 and proved a strong influence. There were frequent musical evenings at which Schubert's music was performed, but never any official position and never the kind of opportunity for larger scale composition that such a position might have given.
The last years of Schubert's life were clouded by ill health and the idea of death was a familiar one. His mother, after all, had born fourteen children, of which only five survived, a not uncommon statistical proportion at the time. For his contemporaries the poet and writer Matthias Claudius came to terms with the spectre, nick-named by him "Freund Hein". Death, even in the poem "Der Tod und das Mädchen", is not so much a "wilder Knochenmann", a cruel man of bones, as a friend offering peace and rest. Schubert's setting of the poem was made in 1817. His String Quartet in D minor was written seven years later, in March, 1824, before a happy summer, to be spent again at Zseliz as tutor to the daughters of Count Johann Karl Esterházy. This is, nevertheless, a time in Schubert's Life in which illness and thoughts of death were to occupy his mind.
The D minor Quartet has death at its heart. The first movement opens with a call to our attention in a strongly marked first subject, to be contrasted with a more yielding lyrical second subject. This is followed by a slow movement that has given the quartet its title. It is in the form of a theme and five variations, the former taken from Schubert's setting of the poem by Matthias Claudius, "Der Tod und das Mädchen", in which the second section provides apt music and characteristic rhythm for the words of Death himself.
The scherzo moves, in its companion trio, into wistful happiness, and leads to a final movement in which some have detected a Dance of Death, its ominous urgency delayed briefly by an emphatic second subject. The four movements, unified in mood and intention, form a work of a very different kind from, for example, the Trout Quintet, in which the world is one of greater peace and serenity. In the D minor Quartet tragedy is near, whatever comfort Freund Hein may have to offer to the philosophical.
The so-called Quartettsatz, a single Allegro movement in C minor, was written in December, 1820. Sketches exist for the opening of a second, slow movement, but the existing first movement proves remarkable enough in itself, with its chromatic and agitated first subject and lilting A flat second subject. The work, significant even in its incomplete form, belongs rather to the world of the three last quartets than to the more comfortable domestic setting of the earlier quartets, the last of which had been composed in 1816. It marks, in any case, the beginning of a period in Schubert's life in which his music was becoming known to a wider public.
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