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8.557107 - SCHUBERT: String Quartets (Complete), Vol. 5
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Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

String Quartet No. 6 in D major • String Quartet No. 11 in E major • String Quartet No.2 in C major


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 19th 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 composition of the String Quartet in D major, D.74, was seemingly started on 22nd August 1813 and completed in the following month, during which he composed his cantata for his father’s name-day, an event for which the quartet was also intended. It was in September that he was offered the scholarship that would have allowed him to continue his academic education, an offer eventually rejected. The first subject of the opening movement is stated by the first violin over a sustained cello pedal note, presumably designed for his father to play. There is an equally cheerful second subject, accompanied principally by the second violin and viola. The central development finds a place for a further derivative melody, and the first subject returns in recapitulation in the dominant, with the secondary theme in G. The third theme returns in D major, leading to the closing section of the movement. The G major Andante starts with a theme of gentle charm, after which a transition leads to more poignant material, before the return of the principal theme. The original key returns in the Menuetto, framing a Trio in which the cello has little to add. The final Allegro opens with the first introducing a melody over a running second violin part which is later taken up by the viola. A second song-like theme is introduced and the material is developed before a return of the first subject in the dominant key and of the second, duly restored to D major, before the mounting excitement of the final section.


Schubert wrote his String Quartet in E major, D.353, in 1816. It was published in 1840 as Op.125, No.2. 1816 brought an unsuccessful application for a position as a teacher at Laibach, an end of a romance with Therese Grob, the daughter of family neighbours, and a move away from home and its duties to Schober’s rooms in the city. It also saw the composition of some hundred songs, two more symphonies, and an attempted opera that remained unfinished. It was once thought the quartet was a later work, although it actually belongs to the group of those early quartets written at home at his father’s. The first movement, marked Allegro con fuoco, shows immediate signs of greater maturity, while still under the strong influence of Mozart. The exposition, which is repeated, is followed by the expected central development of the thematic material before the recapitulation. The A major Andante again has a song-like principal theme, ornamented in what follows, with a shift to C major, before returning in the original key, with a varied accompaniment. There is a further transformation, before the theme returns for the last time in its original form. The E major Menuetto frames a C major Trio, and the final Rondo, like the other movements, finds room for modestly contrapuntal exploration of the material, as the main theme returns, a framework for contrasting episodes.


The String Quartet in C major, D.32, was finally reassembled in 1954, after an earlier existence that included only the present first movement and the Menuetto. It was written in September and October 1812, the year in which Schubert’s mother died and in which his voice broke, bringing an end to his service as a chorister. A characteristic rhythmic figure introduces the quartet, forming part of the first subject and a secondary F major theme. There are unexpected moments, not least the sudden plucked notes that precede the closing section. The minor key Andante has a gentle melancholy about it, and the Menuetto, with its lilting F major Trio dispels any sadness. The quartet ends with a dramatic Allegro con spirito which seems thematically connected with what has gone before, particularly in its use of figures in unison and of a familiar, menacing semitone figure, part of current musical language.


Keith Anderson

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