Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Parker Quartet, Franz Schubert and His Unfinished String Quartet

The Parker String Quartet returns to Harrisburg for a concert this Saturday at 8pm at the Temple Ohev Sholom at 2345 N. Front Street in uptown Harrisburg. Composer Jeremy Gill will be talking about his new work, “Capriccio,” during the pre-concert talk which begins at 7:15.

A few weeks ago, I was flipping around the TV dial while looking for something worth watching and landed in the midst of an episode of “House” in which one of Dr. House's colleagues was talking with his wife over dinner when she announced the news they've gotten the Parker Quartet to play for the gala. Now, not being a regular viewer, I don't know what the gala was all about to know if I should “get” this, but I thought it was cool a real live string quartet was mentioned rather than their writers having made one up (“the Arglebargle Quartet,” say) or used an obviously famous one (say, “the Juilliard Quartet” which might seriously challenge their gala budget).

But the Parker Quartet has garnered more professional success than a passing mention in a mainstream television program (as an example of product placement in the arts goes). True, the New York Times hailed the quartet as “something extraordinary,” and the Boston Globe has acclaimed their “pinpoint precision and spectacular sense of urgency.” In addition to winning several major competitions, being awarded the Cleveland Quartet Award from Chamber Music America brought them, among more prestigious places across the country, to Harrisburg's Market Square Concerts' series, and now they return as one of the more sought-after quartets in a very crowded field.

They've been appointed as Artists-in-Residence at Harvard next year and they've already collected a Grammy Award, winning the “Best Chamber Music Performance” Grammy in 2011 for their second recording which featured the complete works for string quartet by György Ligeti.

They've also had a long working relationship with one of the composers on this concert's program: no, not Schubert who died in 1828 or Felix Mendelssohn who died in 1847 – but Harrisburg-born and still young and healthy Jeremy Gill. They premiered his recent “Capriccio” earlier this year and will be performing it along with works by those other guys I mentioned.

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The Parker Quartet's program begins with a famous work by Franz Schubert, his “Quartettsatz” or “Quartet Movement” in C Minor. A bustling, energetic and above all dramatic work, here's a performance by a quartet who will be appearing on the Market Square Concerts series in April, 2014, the Daedalus Quartet:

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Dr. Dick: Good evening and welcome to Dr. Dick's Market Square Concerts Blog Live. I'm sitting here with Franz Schubert, one of the world's most favorite composers. Welcome to the blog, Mr. Schubert. Your Quartettsatz in C Minor is usually described these days as a one-movement string quartet – which isn't exactly the case, is it?

Franz Schubert: Well, no, not really. You see, I had this habit of leaving things incomplete for one reason or another. You know, my friends used to joke I was so lazy, if I dropped a page while I was writing, I'd just start composing the next piece I had on my mind.

Dr. Dick: They said you composed like an apple tree bears fruit. And yet we're so glad to have at least a few of the windfalls...

Schubert: (What's that supposed to mean...?)

Dr. Dick: Uhm, while your most popular symphony is undoubtedly your “Unfinished Symphony,” there are actually several symphonies you left incomplete, in one way or another – at least four others including one you were working on at the time of your death, not just the famous B Minor Symphony.

Schubert: Yeah, dying is a pretty good reason for leaving something unfinished, but I'd started working on that B Minor Symphony in the fall of 1822.

Dr. Dick: The popular argument is you realized the work was superb enough to stand on its own as a two-movement piece...?

Schubert: Where do you come up with these things? I mean, that's a nice argument, thank you, except there's a sketch for the start of the 3rd movement, a scherzo – and I just suddenly stopped working on it. I don't know why, I just thought it was, you know... maybe not good enough, I guess.

Dr. Dick: And the same is true of this “Quartettsatz” – you started a second movement, an Andante in A-flat Major of, what...? 41 measures, and it, too, just stops.

Schubert: Yeah, well, I had this problem with concentrating, I guess. (He takes a sip of beer.)

Dr. Dick: Around the time you'd begun working on your 6th Symphony – the one in C Major normally known as the “Little C Major” to distinguish it from the bigger and greater “Great C Major” Symphony – it's like you wanted to go in a different direction. Earlier, in 1816, you were scathingly critical about Beethoven, but a few years later, you were talking about expanding the form of not only symphonies but also piano sonatas and string quartets – just like Beethoven was doing.

Schubert: Don't tell Beethoven about that – we all change our minds as we grow up (I was still a teenager then). But you've got to remember that between 1815 and 1820, Beethoven was going through quite a rough patch. He'd already written his 7th and 8th Symphonies by 1812, his latest string quartet, Op.95, was in 1810 (but it wasn't published until 1816). And he didn't get out of this slump of his – in large part, no doubt, thanks to that nephew business – until he began his “Hammerklavier” Sonata in 1819. He'd already begun his 9th Symphony during this period, but it was going slowly around 1817 and he didn't finish it until 1824. Those incredible Late Quartets? They didn't start taking shape until the early-1820s, you know. So, yeah, it was a pretty challenging time for both of us: he was in his mid-40s to around 50 and I was, like, in my early-20s.

Dr. Dick: But while he was also working on “expanding the form” in his later works, it's curious that you weren't following his lead: you were in a sense anticipating him, weren't you? The only problem is, you never completed any of these “experimental” works of yours from this time. Even when you completed your first two expansive quartets, the Rosamunda and the Death and the Maiden Quartets, Beethoven had just begun work on his Op. 127, the first of his Late Quartets!

Schubert: Well, yeah... but, you know, it was a small town, Vienna. It's just most of the successful composers were making a killing in the opera business. I mean, that's what I really wanted to do, was, like, make my name as an opera composer, you know?

Dr. Dick: We'll get to that, later, but...

Schubert: By the way, these dumplings are really very good – could you get me the recipe? (He reaches for another one.)

Dr. Dick: So this single, brief quartet movement – the first movement of a most likely four-movement work in the traditional manner – was written in December of 1820 when you were a month or so short of turning 24.

Schubert: Who are you calling “short”?

Dr. Dick: I mean, when Beethoven was 24, he hadn't written his first symphony or a published string quartet!

Schubert: That was Beethoven's problem, you know – he was too... uhm, what... methodical? Sketching and sketching... he'd spend months, years working on these ideas of his. Me? I'd rather knock off a few songs and then go out drinking with Schober and the guys...

Dr. Dick: But curiously enough, there's one of these “unfinished symphonies” you were working on at the same time as the “Quartettsatz” – along with another opera that also remained incomplete. This symphony's in D Major (given the Deutsch Catalog No. 708a, and it was only discovered in some Viennese library in the 1970s) – you started it in December of 1820 also and then abandoned it sometime after the New Year. And then, a few months after that, you began another one – also left incomplete – but that one would have been on a much grander scale, judging from you did write down of it.

Schubert: (Shrugs his shoulders) Like I said...

Dr. Dick: Let's listen to the Emerson Quartet play this incomplete Andante which was intended to be the 2nd Movement of a full-length String Quartet in C Minor, D.703...

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(By the way, you can listen to the most complete movement of the symphony D.708a which Schubert began (and abandoned) around the same time, starting here.)

Schubert: That's nice, but you know, every time I hear something like that, I keep thinking what else I could have done instead. That's probably why I left so much unfinished...

Dr. Dick: Now, you grew up in a music-making household. So why did you stop writing string quartets in 1816 or so, and then only write four more – this “Quartettsatz” and the last three masterpieces from 1824 to 1826?

Schubert: What can I say? From the time I was 13 and I'd started composing seriously, my family was very supportive. I mean, Dad loved to play the cello and my big brother Ferdinand was really a very fine violinist. Another brother also played the violin so I ended up, by default, playing the viola – which was actually a lot of fun, you know, sitting there in the middle of the harmony, listening to the melody on one side and the bass-line on the other. I mean, it was good enough for Mozart, right?

So, yeah, I wrote maybe 14 string quartets, give or take, in a period of, what... six years? And my dad, he insisted we play all of them. So we'd get our instruments out and play them for friends who'd come by – little music parties. I guess these were the first of the Schubertiads...

Dr. Dick: So why did you stop writing quartets so often? It would've been nice to have a few more from you.

Schubert: It would've been nice to live a little longer, too, right? But hey... I didn't do too badly for a guy who died when he was 31. After all, not to knock Beethoven, but if he died that young, we'd only have two symphonies and the first six of all those quartets he wrote. (He shakes his head in disbelief.)

Anyway, that was when I moved away from my father's home, went out on my own. There was less reason to write amateur quartets for us to play after that. And I didn't have that many professional friends who were just dying to play my stuff, either... It was a tough town, Vienna...

Dr. Dick: So that was when you began focusing primarily on songs (which were easier to get performed and distributed) and trying to make a name for yourself as a composer of opera.

Schubert: Right. In Vienna then, the true path to financial and professional success was in the opera world. Now, in the months before December, 1820, I'd had two operas in rehearsal and one was such a harrowing experience – all those last-minute changes – it didn't help it turned out to be a failure. I mean, what do these people want, you know? I even started another opera, one I thought might do better with the producers, at least, but, no, they thought it was too... well, I don't know – they didn't like it, either, so I put that one aside, too.

Dr. Dick: Now, there's one other event from 1820 I want to mention. You'd met Teresa Grob back in 1814 when you were 17 years old.

Schubert: (he sighs and takes another sip of beer.) She was a young girl I'd seen in the neighborhood, the daughter of a successful merchant, and she was a soprano in the church choir – lovely voice, too. So I wrote this Mass which the choir was going to perform and I wanted her to sing the soprano solo: I'd written it with her in mind. I was such a dweeb...

Dr. Dick: And you wrote a few other things for her as well, like a little song called Gretchen am Spinnrad...?

Schubert: Everybody says that was one of my best – and she loved it, too.

Dr. Dick: Let's listen to it, here, with Dawn Upshaw, the soprano...

Schubert: Not bad for 17, huh...? (a long sip of beer, here.) Well, I was head over heels in love with Teresa and we wanted to get married, she and I, but you know how it is – her father, a successful merchant like I said, didn't think I, a lowly would-be musician, would ever amount to much, right? Besides, in 1815, the Austrian government had passed a law that prohibited men from marrying unless they could prove they had the means to support a wife and family. Can you imagine that? I mean, there were lots of young men who were going to be forced into celibacy or into, well... gross sensuality – you know, “commercial sex” – and I think if they'd repealed that law and I could've married her, I might not have contracted syphilis and almost died from it when I was 25 years old – that was around the time I wrote my B Minor Symphony and the “Wanderer” Fantasy, too. I really poured my heart out in those pieces... Well, anyway, after I got shot down for that teaching job in Laibach in 1816, I knew there wasn't a chance in hell her father would let us marry. I mean, I was happy not to be teaching – I hated being a teacher, like my dad was – so here I was, then, free to focus on becoming a composer.

Dr. Dick: So, what did Teresa do...?

Schubert: Oh, her father found her some master-baker and they finally got married – on November 21st, 1820, right there in the church where she first sang my music...

Dr. Dick: And then a few weeks later, you wrote this “Quartettsatz,” right?

Schubert: Right. (Say, are you going to eat the rest of those dumplings...?)

Dr. Dick: I'm sorry we're out of time, now, so thank you Franz – may I call you Franz? – for stopping by to talk about your music. This has been Dick Strawser for Dr. Dick's Market Square Concerts Blog. See you Saturday night at 8:00 at Temple Ohev Sholom. Have a great evening.

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