Schubert String Quartet no. 5 in B flat, D. 68

performed by the Melos Quartet

1813 was a busy year for the young Franz Schubert. But then again, to have died at 31 and written as much as he did, perhaps every year was a busy year for Franz Schubert. But if you look at his list of compositions on Wikipedia and search for the text “1813” on that page, you’ll receive 76 results, mostly songs, but his first symphony and a handful of string quartets (or quartet fragments, like today’s) come from 1813.

As you may know, the quartet was a family affair in the Schubert home, with the composer on viola, and some of his earliest works for the form were to be played by the family. Unfortunately for us, the fifth quartet is an incomplete work, although it still gets its own undisputed number in Schubert’s quartet output, unlike the abandoned seventh and unfinished eighth symphonies that so confuse the numbering of the C major ‘great’ ninth (or seventh or eighth?) symphony.

And if you listen to these two movements, it seems a crying shame that the other movements are missing, because what we do have seems mature and engaging and well-written. Remember, our little composer is only like 16 years old here. But what’s missing?

It’s actually the middle movements. What we have are the first and last, apparently, and not the first and second. As Keith Anderson discusses in these Naxos liner notes, Schubert’s deviation from (some of) the standard quartet tradition belies, not an ignorance or inability, but a certain daring. He was beyond aware of the great quartet masters in whose shadows he walked: Haydn. Mozart. Beethoven. He all but worshipped the latter. In any case, although the quartet is incomplete, like many other of the earliest works of other composers, we get a glimpse into how the young Schubert was approaching composition and how he was maturing.

I haven’t found anything online to give any reason for why he abandoned this work, because his sixth, as we shall see, is a complete quartet, and was completed within weeks of the unfinished fifth. I suppose it’s most likely that they’re lost. Wikipedia lists the middle movements as “missing,” which would make sense. What a shame.

As it stands now, the work’s two extant movements still come to almost fourteen minutes of playing time, notably quite a bit longer than the quartets that Mozart wrote at (almost) the same age. Schubert’s sixth, as we shall see, is double the length of Mozart’s fourth we discussed last week. In fact, based on my entirely not empirical comparison, we have to get to Mozart’s 14th quartet before we reach a work as long as Schubert’s sixth (I know, I know, observation of repeats and recording times vary, I know.)

The first movement shows what I hear to be a refreshing polish, or focus on content. While his first quartet was “in various keys”, he shows similarity and contrast with two different themes that share a focus on dotted rhythms, with also some more memorable dramatic moments as transitions.

The final movement, after what I’m sure were (or would have been?) two beautiful middle movements, is a rondo, a young composer’s approach to a very traditional form, as from Haydn or Mozart. While it’s small, it has plenty of gleaming treasures to show. It’s fragrant and quaint, but not inconsequential. It’s polished and polite, but with a sense of depth and contrast, and some dramatic pauses, a small little masterpiece.

There’s not really any need to spend too much time pondering that, as we still have almost a dozen of the composer’s later, greater quartets to enjoy, and most of those are thankfully complete. Just listen and enjoy the young composer’s skill and maturity. The takeaway for me is that we’re beginning to hear how a young composer is assimilating the influences of his masters with his own voice. We’re off to hear the sixth tomorrow.

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