Monday, April 23, 2012

And Schubert at the Close: The C Major String Quintet

This weekend, the Cypress Quartet, joined by cellist Gary Hoffman, will perform what I think is one of the Greatest Works in the Chamber Music Repertoire (and one of the Great Works, period), the String Quintet in C Major which Franz Schubert wrote at the end of his brief life. The program is this weekend, Saturday April 28th at 8pm in Whitaker Center.

You can hear various clips of the complete work on this post.

Here's a post about the quintet which I'd written for another performance back in 2008 which looks into some of the historical background of the piece and the other music Schubert composed in his final year before his death at the age of 31.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

There are so many things that continue to amaze me no matter how many times I hear Schubert’s Quintet.

For some, there’s just the question, “why two cellos?” It was more standard to add a viola to a string quartet: that’s what Mozart did, though that may have had as much to do with his preferring to play the viola and listening to the music from his “inside-out” position, between the melody in the violins and the harmonic bass in the cello. He also like to pair off the 1st violin against the 1st viola in conversational sonorities. Along the same lines, Boccherini, a virtuoso cellist, wrote string quintets with two cellos, where the pivotal melodic roles are shared by the 1st violin and the 1st cello (in some cases, they sound more like cello concertos with the accompaniment of a string quartet, but when you write the piece, you write the rules). Even afterwards, the standard string quintet was still two violas and one cello: not even Brahms and Dvořák felt the need to change it.

Schubert usually played the viola in the family string quartet. Judging from his treatment of the cello in his late chamber music – like the two piano trios and especially the last string quartet – it’s not difficult to hear how he was drawn to this deeper, fuller sonority and richer texture. Almost as much of a mystery as “why two cellos” is why he wrote it at all – there was no performance in the near future and there were no other quartets with a second cellist going around likely to be looking for such a piece. Like many of the works Schubert composed, he wrote it because he wanted to. Or perhaps, needed to.

People have said there must have been a rush to complete as much music as he could before he died, not that anyone would know how much time they have left in one’s life, especially when you’re in your early-30s like Franz Schubert in the 21 months following the death of Beethoven. But that’s the way Schubert was most of his life, writing as much music as he could possible get down on paper: how else do you end up with nearly a thousand pieces in your catalogue in just 18 years?

From November, 1827, to his death a year later, Schubert wrote (if not completed) 36 works, according to Otto Deutsch’s catalogue, including
- Piano Trio in E-flat (D.929, published as Op.100) - November ‘27 (the more famous B-flat Trio had been written the month before)
- Fantasy in C for Violin & Piano (D.934) based on the song “Sei mir gegrüsst”) - December ‘27
- Four Impromptus for Piano (D.935, published as Op.142) - December ‘27
- Fantasy in F Minor for Piano Duet (D.940) - January-April ‘28
- “Auf dem Strom” (D.943), song for tenor, horn & piano - March ‘28
- Symphony in C Major The Great” (D.944) – though it was probably composed two years earlier, there had been evidence it was begun (or more likely, revised) in March ‘28
- Three Impromptus for piano (D.946) often called more generically “Drei Klavierstücke” - May ‘28
- Mass in E-flat (D.950) - begun June ‘28
- Quintet in C for Strings (D.956) - sometime in August-September ‘28
- Fourteen Songs known asSchwanengesang” (D.957) - finished between August & October ‘28
- Piano Sonata in C Minor (D.958) – September ‘28
- Piano Sonata in A Major (D.959) – September ‘28
- Piano Sonata in B-flat Major (D.960) – last page dated 26th September ‘28
- Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (“Shepherd on the Rock”) (D.965) October ‘28

Whether you’d consider them all “masterpieces” or not, this list of fourteen works (really 27, since you should count the songs of Schwanengesang individually as it’s not really a single work per se) does not include nine other songs (two or three written earlier that could’ve fit into the set of “Swan-Songs”), eleven part songs and short choral works (including a setting of Psalm 92 in Hebrew, written for a specific temple’s Sabbath service), four other “miscellaneous” works for piano solo or duet and - oh yes – two large-scale unfinished works, a symphony in D Major (D.936a) and an opera, The Count of Gleichen, listed as D.918 because it was begun the previous summer. And one should also include some “homework assignment” for his counterpoint lessons, which I’ll get to, later.

Look at those works written in September 1828, the three last piano sonatas, the C Major Quintet and probably several of the Swan-Songs (only the first and last are actually dated). While there are sketches that exist for material that ended up in the piano sonatas from earlier that summer, most of the work was done in a matter of three weeks.

But the original manuscript of the quintet has vanished and with it any preliminary sketches, though Schubert rarely “sketched,” his inspiration traditionally described as being “at white-heat” that even if he dropped a page on the floor (so the wives’-tale goes) he would prefer to start over on a new page rather than waste the time to pick it up. Was the quintet a product of “white-heat?” Was it really composed, as several biographers seem to conclude, in two weeks’ time? In addition to the sonatas he was either composing or copying over in final form to send off to publishers, that is one very intense month!

And in less than eight weeks, he died ten weeks shy of his 32nd birthday.

It’s not that he knew he was dying. His health had not been good, off and on, especially after 1822 when, at the age of 25, he began showing the first symptoms of syphilis, presumably in November, not long after he finished... or rather, left unfinished the B Minor Symphony (“The Unfinished Symphony”), the score dated October 30th, 1822, and the virtuosic Fantasy in C, a piano solo known as “The Wanderer Fantasy,” also one of his most dramatic, violent and, at times, pessimistic pieces. Signs of illness may not explain the despair of the fantasy or even why he never completed the rest of the symphony (he had started the third movement but stopped after nine measures), since we normally think of works of art being unhampered by reality, but the chronology is difficult to ignore.

It was at the end of August, 1828, that Schubert, on the advice of his doctor, moved out of his friend Schober’s house in downtown Vienna to take a room in his brother’s new suburban home just outside the city, since the air – and no doubt the quieter life – would be better for his health. And then in the next few weeks he wrote the string quintet and three sonatas. Could there be some correlation between his health and his inspiration? Certainly, the quintet is one of the loftiest works anyone has ever written under any circumstances.

Today, a composer could brag he (or she) doesn’t write anything unless it’s commissioned or would at least have a performance of it already lined up. We’ve lost that romantic notion of the struggling artist writing for the sheer pleasure of creating art, the product of pure inspiration.

To say Schubert was famous may not be entirely accurate but statements about his being unknown are not exactly truthful, either. His music did not bring him a great deal of money, though his short dance pieces for piano were popular and his songs were well-known, probably circulating more in manuscript copies, the early-19th Century answer to ipods and illegal downloads. By a small group of music lovers, he was certainly respected, but he had difficulties getting his works performed, mostly because he was writing things that were not practical for Vienna in the 1820s: keep in mind, things had gotten tough enough, economically, that even Beethoven threatened to leave for new financial possibilities in Paris or London.

Ironically, the first public, largely professional concert of Schubert’s music was also his last. It took place on March 26th, 1828, the first anniversary of Beethoven’s death as it turned out, and included the E-flat Piano Trio, several songs and part-songs including “Auf dem Strom,” after opening with a movement of (presumably) the G Major String Quartet. The attendance was good, the response, since it was mostly of Schubert’s many friends and acquaintances, enthusiastic, but there was no critical mention of it in the press because all of Vienna (in fact, all of Germany, apparently) was taken up with the five concerts being given by the then-all-the-rage violinist Nicolo Paganini, performances which brought in about 5600 florins per concert. While I have no idea what a florin in 1828 might be worth today, it’s enough to mention that Schubert’s concert brought in 320 florins total, less than 6% of Paganini’s box-office take. For him, he thought he’d done fairly well – not enough as he’d’ve liked, but he was feeling flush enough to plan a couple of summer vacations. Unfortunately, these never came about.

Schubert was convinced that the path to monetary success and artistic recognition was through the operatic stage. For a composer who could write such intensely dramatic songs and telling psychological miniature portraits in his songs (you only need to point out Gretchen am Spinnrad, written when he was 17, to prove that), he couldn’t write a theatrically successful opera if, not to press the analogy, his life depended on it, but he persisted. Even at the end of his life, he continued working on The Count of Gleichen with its lame, cliché-ridden plot and badly written libretto by one of his closest friends. He filled 36 large pages and 52 smaller-sized sheets with sketches and completed sections but it didn’t seem to matter the censors had already rejected the story – shockingly, it included a benign view of a bigamous hero – so even if he might manage to finish it, it wasn’t going to be taken up by any theater in Vienna.

The unfinished D Major Symphony, usually numbered the tenth – there’s no room here for the story of why there had been no 7th Symphony for so long and why the “Great C Major” appears with various numberings – apparently was begun in October ‘28, fragments of three large-scale movements sketched in a “short score” format (like a reduction playable at the piano, but with occasional orchestrational cues written in). The 2nd movement was the “most complete” section but the 3rd movement, labeled a “scherzo” which would imply there would be a 4th movement finale, seems to have morphed into a combination scherzo-and-finale with several large patches of fugal writing, very unusual for Schubert.

Which brings me back to those “counterpoint lessons” Schubert had set up just before he died. When he was working on the Mass in E-flat earlier that year, he had been studying Handel oratorios: Messiah, he’d said, was one of his favorite works. A few months before his death, Schubert told friends about these Handel scores, realizing “Now for the first time, I see what I lack.” He arranged to take lessons with organist Simon Sechter to “make good the omission.”

What was it that Schubert, at the age of 31 and who’d been composing since he was 13, lacked?


Usually, this is assumed to mean “the writing of fugues,” something that by 1828 was pretty old-fashioned already. Composers might insert “a fugal section” to show that they know how to do something academic, that they’ve learned their craft. It might not always sound natural, given the flow of things: Beethoven aside (who at least admitted he approached it “with some license”), I often feel like we should do The Wave whenever a 19th Century composer breaks into a “learnéd” fugue midstream (there’s one in Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony of 1885 that usually reduces me to a puddle of giggles).

When I listen to Schubert’s quintet, it amazes me that he felt so insecure that he had to go study counterpoint. I’m not familiar with his masses – at least the last two “mature” ones – and I’ve heard the Unfinished D Major Symphony (No. 10, D.936a) once or twice on the radio, enough to remember there’s a lot of fugal writing going on in that last movement (though how much of it is what Schubert sketched and how much is part of Brian Newbould’s realization of it, I couldn’t say), but fugues aside, the art of writing melodically and rhythmically independent lines that are interdependent harmonically – a broader definition of counterpoint – is not something Schubert was lacking!

All you have to do is listen to the opening of the second movement.

Long slow notes in two- and three-part harmony in the inner voices (as they’d be called, regardless of the fact they’re instruments), with rhythmic filagree-like patterns in the 1st violin that remind me of birdsong, and one cello plucking along on what sounds like the downbeat with the harmonic underpinning. These are three fully defined layers of easily identifiable ‘sound’ – the long slow notes actually turn out to be the melodic layer – that becomes clearer the second time around, about 2½ minutes later, when the “bird-calls” of the 1st violin are replaced by plucked chords answering the cello’s bass line. Then, having taken about 5 minutes to run twice through this theme – speaking of expansive – there’s a sudden change of mood: the violins now have the decidedly more dramatic theme, here, the cellos’ bass-line now more insistent, turning back over on itself, and the middle voices now playing an agitated pattern, filling in the harmony but completely separate, rhythmically, from the outer parts, a far cry from the relaxed contemplation of the first theme.

Why would anybody who could create passages like that feel that insecure about needing to study counterpoint?

Unfortunately, we’ll never know what impact those lessons with Simon Sechter would have on Schubert’s later music. He only took one lesson – on November 4th, 1828. He had already complained of feeling sick the week before but managed to walk the four or five miles to the church where his brother Ferdinand’s Requiem was being performed, not counting a three-hour walk they and the choirmaster took afterwards before walking home (no public transportation to the suburbs in those days). Complaining of feeling tired, understandably, Schubert still felt well enough to walk the mile-or-so to and from his teacher’s house for the counterpoint lesson the next day. That weekend, Schubert attended a friend’s dinner party where much wine was drunk and everybody thought he was feeling pretty good (in any number of ways). By Tuesday of that week, then, he “took to his bed,” did not make it to the next lesson - in fact, never left the house again.

Another friend showed up with a copy of his setting of Psalm 23 which needed some corrections. There was no real anxiety – he had been ill before and had recovered before – and Schubert himself complained only of feeling tired, not of any pain. A few days later, he sat up in bed to make corrections on the publisher’s proofs for the second half of the Winterreise songs – keeping in mind the final song, “Der Leiermann” (“The Hurdy-Gurdy Man”), one of the most desolate songs in the repertoire. He wrote to his friend Schober, asking if he could borrow any books by American author James Fennimore Cooper which he hadn’t read yet.

Two days later there was, as they say, “a turn for the worse,” presumably after friends came and played Beethoven’s C-sharp Minor Quartet, Op.131, for him at his request. By the end of the performance, he had become so excited and his condition had deteriorated so rapidly, they put him back in bed. His friend the librettist of The Count of Gleichen came by to visit the next day or so: Schubert had continued to work on it up until that week, and they even talked about another collaboration once he finished this one. Apparently, in these first two weeks of November, he also worked on the sketch for the slow movement of the D Major Symphony, before things got so bad, he was unable to work at all. A few more days passed: on the 18th, Ferdinand wrote later, Schubert began hallucinating, then died the following day. As his friend, the poet Grillparzer wrote for the epitaph, “The art of music here entombed a rich possession, but far fairer hopes.”

So it is impossible – for me, at least – to listen to this quintet and not dwell on things deeper than the acquisition of contrapuntal skills or on the expansion of harmonic and structural techniques to create a work that lasts between 50 and 60 minutes. Schumann, who didn’t know the quintet existed then, wrote about the “heavenly lengths” of the Great C Major Symphony which Ferdinand showed to him during a visit in 1839. The Quintet, equally heavenly, somehow didn’t surface until 1850. Like the symphony, it was just too long – for the audience but also for the players – and both were first performed in heavily cut, shortened versions.

Igor Stravinsky was never one to mince words about other composers (of Benjamin Britten, he said, “He’s an excellent accompanist”), but when someone asked him if he weren’t “sent to sleep by the prolixities of Schubert,” he replied, “What does it matter if, when I awake, it seems to me that I am in paradise?”

- Dick Strawser

No comments:

Post a Comment