Schubert String Quartet no. 6 in D major, D. 74

performed by the Melos Quartet

Quick on the heels of the young composer’s incomplete fifth quartet is his sixth, in D major. The composition of this work begun just days after the completion (or abandonment?) of the fifth quartet, and was finished within a matter of weeks. There’s a lot of D major here, with three of the four movements (and even the trio of the third movement) in the same key.

I turn again to program notes from Naxos, again written by Keith Anderson. He says the quartet was composed alongside a cantata for his father’s name day, and mentions that Schubert was offered a scholarship that would allow him to continue his studies, but that he turned down the offer.

The first movement here is likely the most eventful, or notable, or whatever word you’d like to use. It seems mostly like a pretty straightforward sonata-form movement, with a move to the dominant key in the second subject, both of which are rather cheerful, but once we reach the development, another related theme appears, but it’s not just a result of the development. It’s maintained through into the recapitulation and is what rounds out this first movement in its home key. It’s an ambitious little structure for a young composer.

But honestly, by this point, I think I should dispense with the ‘young composer’ and ‘getting his sea legs’ or ‘growing up’ bit. It’s very clear by now that this Franz Schubert is a sensitive talent with a musical mind and outstanding potential, possessing both a firm grasp on the traditions behind him as well as sense of creativity.

The andante second movement in G is the only one not in the home key of D major. It begins with a theme of sweet pleasantness, unadorned simple beauty, but through a quieter passage marked with a few pizzicatos, transitions into a more pained central passage before returning to the pleasantness of the opening. While there might not seem to be anything outstanding about this, I admire the subtlety of this movement, and I think it displays a maturity and restraint that marks much of the composer’s work.

The third movement is a minuet in D, a crisp, stately melody of simple beauty with splashes of minor contrast. The central trio sounds like some kind of whispered conversation in another room, a break away from the action, marked by awkward pauses, with the higher strings delivering most of the content before they return to the party in the return of the minuet and the cello comes back to help them finish out the movement.

In the allegro we find the most spirited content of the entire quartet. It sounds celebratory, and perhaps we should celebrate that the composer saw fit or was able to finish this work, for it delivers a polish and sense of subtle humor, personality that encourages us to look forward to the yet more mature quartets. The exciting finale maintains the Schubertian lyricism and finesse we’re used to hearing, but with a sense of forward motion, a Mozartian energy and vitality that tells us that maybe we’re finally getting around to the more influential, memorable quartets, but we’ve got to get up into the double-digit quartets to get any more than just a few years ahead of this work, which we shall do eventually. Enjoy this quartet, though, especially the wonderfully written finale, which closes with surprising restraint.

You might, like I did, find it surprising that we have to get to Schubert’s eleventh quartet (of 15 numbered quartets) before we get to a quartet work composed after 1815. Mind you, we’re already at no. 7, and still in 1813. The 12th quartet is actually just the first movement of yet another quartet that the composer didn’t complete, so we see him having written a bunch of quartets, and a few other movements here and there, and then not getting around to the form again for a few years, or else those works have just been lost.

And this is something that’s a little frustrating about Schubert’s catalogue: some stuff is out of order, lots of stuff ends up being fragments of incomplete or partially lost work, and so we don’t have, at least not without some research, a clear, straightforward chronology of “this is what he wrote and when and for this occasion”, and in some cases, as we have seen, we’re apparently not entirely sure if the work was abandoned, forgotten, or if we’ve just lost whole movements and are stuck with only parts of a work that actually was completed. Maybe the composer himself didn’t put a lot of importance on the works at the time, and we can certainly be thankful that his latest, greatest works do  survive, but how moved would the composer be to know that people would be so eager to get their hands on the rest of these earliest compositions? How times change.

Anyway, we’re done for now with Schubert and will be moving on to another quite famous composer of song, so do stay tuned.

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