Julliard String Quartet
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With his last three string quartets Schubert, who had become known above all as a composer of lieder, wanted to tree himself of thankless reputation of being a master of the small-scale composition and, in his own words, wished "to pave the way to the great symphony", (letter to Kupelwieser of March 1824). It is true that even as a pupil at the gymnasium and choir boy in the court orchestra he had composed at least eight string quartets by the time he was 17, but corrections in the manuscripts reveal that they were partly overseen by his teacher of composition, Salieri, and cannot be regarded as completely his own intellectual property. Before he started composing the string quartets Nos 12 - 15 he gave an idea of how he intended to distance himself and differentiate from the examples of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven with a C minor quartet movement, which dates from December 1820, but was not performed until 1867. Instead of a rhythmically or melodically incisive opening theme, the movement begins with an excited quaver figure, based on half-tones, which runs through the whole movement as a central and basic motif and which accompanies the successive melodies in counterpoint. The experiment of letting the "accompaniment" dominate a distinct theme and ot negating the hierarchical structures must have appeared overly daring, even to the composer himself. He added no more complete movements to this one, so radically and technically difficult, but - after a fragmentary andante in A flat major - broke off the venture and allowed three years to pass before, in early 1824, he began work on the A minor quartet No. 13 (D. 808). Its premiere in March of the same year signalled the first public performance ot a string quartet by Schubert.
This A minor quartet (D. 804) is the first ot those three works which differ so markedly from Beethoven, and not only in their melodical arrangements. Instead ot Beethoven's staging ot conflicts, Schubert presented the fragmentation ot thematic groups, providing continually new colouring through constant harmonic reinterpretation, modulation and change. Instead ot the dramatic principle, he placed the epic into the foreground and assembled the complete form of a movement from essentially identical material by giving it kaleidoscopic breadth. The opening bars with their accompanying ostinato figure, with their changes between minor and major keys and a roaming melancholic tune, open the view to a truly romantic "soul lanscape"; the andante, with a quotation from the "Rosamunde" interlude, combines fantastic coloration ot sound and a wealth ot motifs in polyphonic style, with the wanderer rhythm which is so characteristic ot Schuberts style. In the minuet, the principal theme ot which originates in a lied written in 1819, emotional chasms are glossed over in a kind ot congeniality typical ot country waltzes, and the finale is controlled largely by a one-bar motif and is inspired partly by echoes ot Hungarian folk music. But the continual congestions, pauses and harmonic changes reveal a distrust ot jubilation before the finale, which indicates an ambiguity that anticipates Mahler.
The most forbidding and gloomy piece of the classical and early romantic period is the quartet in D minor (D. 810), which was begun in 1824, but which took almost two years to complete. Its first public performance took place five years atter Schubert's death. The powerful tensions of the first movement result from the combination of the impetuous unisono beginning and a triplet figure, which dominates the first ten, thematically elusive, opening bars. The five resonant variations of "Der Tod und das Madchen" (1817) by Claudius, set to music by Schubert, figuratively paraphrase the theme but otherwise leave it untouched. They are charged with increasing rhythmical and emotional intensity, until a coda once more takes up the modest, unceremonious homophony of the beginning, allowing this movement, the only one, to end in a gentle major. Characters from the first and second movements are included in the terse scherzo, richly interspersed with syncopes, and, playing off the great dynamic and tonal contrasts against one another in a very confined space, in the trio almost possess the innocence of a country-waltz. In the demoniacal danse macabre, which is part of the 700-bar-long presto finale - a sonata-rondo with short developmental elements and stretta ending, which vibrates with excitement - the employment of long unisono passages as a structuring element is very striking. They direct attention to the fact that the character of the secondary theme is re-interpreted three times and that tonal structuring, rhythmic moulding and the filling in of harmonic space are those characteristics in Schubert's later quartets which reached far into the future and made him, amongst other things, a forerunner of Bruckner.
The G major quartet op. 161 (D. 887), which was written within ten days in the summer of 1826, demonstrates most strongly - with its density of expression, its orchestral power and its dramatically and thematically defined tremolo accumulations - that for Schubert the particular sound structure of a string quartet was insufficient and that his already quoted intention ("to pave the way to a great symphony") was more than an empty phrase. In the first fourteen bars he succeeded in giving shape to the provocative idea of playing on the dualism of the major-minor coloration in the most confined space and, at the same time, investing it with significance as a motif. The thrilling, suspenseful opening bars, together with the theme proper, have the effect of a "double theme" - a characteristic which can also be found in other late works by Schubert and which underlines his creative attempt to come to terms with the traditional form of the sonata. In the elegiac "Andante un poco molto" it is possible to analyse harmonic hardness and frictions, but with their partly bitonal effect Schubert uncompromisingly ignores the conventions of classical tonality - only the coda, which ends in a gentle E major, symbolizes the mood of solace and dream. The main part of the capricious scherzo is dominated by a two-bar motif, in the development of which Schubert emphasized the contrast between vigorous movement and a constrained line. The ambling trio with its contrasting accentuation of the accompaniment is a lively counterpart to it. In the finale, which alternates between the forms of the sonata and rondo, Schubert takes up once more the harmonic structure of the major-minor oscillations in quick succession and establishes right from the outset the musical link with the central movement. Scintillating expansion of harmonic fields, ingenious play with the first two eighths of the six-eight time and restlessness of activity mirror emotional excitement and tension and lend the movement originality and expressive clarity.