Schubert String Quartet no. 4 in C, D. 46

performed by the Melos Quartet

There don’t seem to be any portraits of the Young Franz, at least not that I could dig up in a lazy search. Let’s listen.

“Wait… isn’t this in C major?” It’s the darkest C major opening I’ve heard. Well, one looks ahead in the score, and sure enough, 19 bars later, there’s a double bar, and an allegro con moto marking. Look for that. You can’t miss it. It’s in pretty great contrast to the somber opening, but still doesn’t sound the bright, sunny key of C major that we’re used to. It’s tense and stormy, even unsettling, and driving. Unison runs across the entire ensemble are a noticeable part of this movement, even of the entire work, but lead to a much friendlier passage, to which one would smile, tip a hat to a stranger. These furious unfurling kind of runs show up time and again, and the opening somber theme seems to be used in the transitional material between the themes and at the end of the exposition, before the repeat. The adagio introduction is also significant to the development, giving the listener an ‘aha’ understanding of the importance of the passage. There are more intricate things here, like way certain sounds pass around the orchestra or how a certain line builds or decays. While the development is played faster than the introduction, they seem to be clearly related.

Eight minutes is substantial for an early string quartet like this, and it makes up more than a third of the length of the entire quartet. Aside from powerful use of runs are tense moments of long pauses, sometimes two bars of total silence, and these are also very effective.

What follows is andante con moto, and it sounds like Haydn, I mean exactly like Haydn. I’ll give a little spoiler alert to the upcoming episode of the podcast tomorrow. I had a chance to chat with a guy who sounds like he knew Haydn personally. He’s incredibly knowledgeable, and gave lots of insight into Haydn’s works, but there’s a similar idea in these early works of Schubert, that they were family pieces, for the men of the house to play together. My guest in the podcast calls Haydn’s string quartets his ‘workshop’, where he’d try stuff out, stuff that would appear later on in his larger-scale works, and I think much of this holds true for Schubert. It’s just that the association to Haydn made it seem even clearer. The outer passages are more delicate, supply Viennese (?) sounding, while the central passage is much more yearning, even a little turbulent. Each of the instruments in this work has had their time to speak out above the others without breaking the overall unity of the ensemble. The tension doesn’t last, and the movement cools down quickly to end the way it began.

The third movement, pretty standardly, is a (pretty standard) minuet. It’s full of simple contrasts and rhythmic interest, vacillating between fortes and pianos, but you’ll notice the second part of the minuet is almost entirely in unison. This seems odd, but also effects a certain tension that’s released when the ensemble breaks back down into its own voices. The trio brings a light freshness to the work, with its use of sixteenth notes, and it is overall a pleasant movement. Just think of a father and his three sons smiling at/with each other as they play this; it’s living room music, not concert hall music… yet.

The finale sounds new and energetic, buzzing with a certain kind of suppressed energy, with a light but driving gallop-y feel. It is playful, at turns almost ominous, but overall a cheerful, even festive movement to wrap up a string quartet that’s more charming and pleasant than it is passionate or life-changing. Again, living room… think of a family playing this, father teaching his children about performance or other musical things, and it suddenly becomes much more endearing, works that the young composer wrote as a family affair of sorts, smiles and laughter as the final chord comes to an end and bows come down.

As with Haydn, I’m looking forward to reaching the more-often performed masterpieces, but these works provide an invaluable insight into where those late works came from, how they came to be, and with that in mind we appreciate both the youthful and mature that much more. Stay tuned.

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