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String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, D. 804 "Rosamunde"

About the Work

Franz Schubert Composer: Franz Schubert
© Robert Markow

STRING QUARTET NO. 13 IN A MINOR, D. 804 (Op. 29) "Rosamunde"

FRANZ PETER SCHUBERT

Born January 31, 1797, in Vienna

Died November 19, 1828, in Vienna

 

Schubert's output of string quartets (fifteen complete extant works, plus fragments of others) falls into two broad periods. There are the twelve "early" quartets he wrote as a teenager between the years 1811 and 1816. Then, following a long gap (eight years is a long time in Schubert's brief life) he resumed work in this medium in 1824 with the three, long, mature works in A minor, D minor (Death and the Maiden) and G major. 

      The plethora of early quartets owes its existence to the tradition of Hausmusik in Schubert's family, wherein the composer (viola), two brothers (violins) and his father (cello) regularly played music together, including of course the talented youngster's latest compositions. When he returned to string quartet writing in early 1824, the impetus was now of a more professional nature. Schubert had become acquainted with the famous violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, who had performed many of Beethoven's difficult works, and was the leader of a fine string quartet in Vienna. Schubert wrote his A-minor quartet for Schuppanzigh's quartet, which gave the first performance on March 14, 1824 to a warm reception. The work was published in September, and became the only one of Schubert's chamber compositions to be published in his lifetime.

      It is always dangerous to try to conjoin the facts of an artist's outer, biographical circumstances with his creative output, but in the case of the A-minor quartet the associations are unavoidable; in fact, they are central to its conception. The mood of tragedy, depression and despair that hangs over this work is surely a reflection of Schubert's dismal life at the time of composition. (On the other hand, however, the Octet, composed at the same time, is a work of genial spirit and sunny disposition.) Schubert had just spent a long period in hospital, being treated for the venereal disease (probably syphilis) that would kill him less than five years later, and both his physical and mental health were in fragile condition. The pitiful letter he wrote to his friend Leopold Kupelwieser is often quoted in this context:

      "I feel myself the most unfortunate, the most miserable being in the world. Think of a man whose health will never be right again, and who from despair over the fact makes it worse instead of better. Think of a man, I say, whose splendid hopes have come to naught, to whom the happiness of love and friendship offer nothing but the most acute pain, whose enthusiasm (at least, the inspiring kind) for the Beautiful, threatens to disappear, and ask yourself whether he isn't a miserable unfortunate fellow?" 

      The despairing mood finds its counterpart throughout the first movement of the A-minor quartet. A variant of the "spinning" motif from Schubert's song "Gretchen am Spinnrade" is an almost constant undercurrent, beginning in the opening measures. The song's text is virtually a paraphrase of the letter quoted above: "My peace is gone, my heart is heavy/I can never find it again." The spinning motif supports an almost inexpressibly sad song for the first violin, which remains the leading voice across a span of thirty measures. The second theme is another song-like subject shared by the two violins. Though the music is now in C major, it is still tinged with melancholy and suffused with the image of smiling through tears. Both themes, but especially the first, are put through numerous subtle transformations of melody and harmony, shifting fluidly between the major and minor tonalities, and often involved in contrapuntal manipulations.

      The second movement uses as its main theme one of Schubert's most beloved and widely known. Schubert himself obviously had a fondness for it, as it forms the substance also of the Entracte Music after Act III for the incidental music to Rosamunde, written a few months earlier, and again, in varied form, as the third of the four impromptus Op. 142 (D. 935) three years later. The gentle, pastoral quality of this theme accords perfectly with the setting it introduces in the play for which it was originally written (Rosamunda tending her flocks).

      The Menuetto reverts to the world of gloom and despairing sighs. It is difficult to imagine anyone dancing to this mournful music. Schubert again makes reference to another of his own compositions in quoting a fragment of the song "Die Götter Griechenlands." Set to an ode of Schiller, it reflects sadly on lost paradise as celebrated in Greek art and yearns for the return of youth. The Trio raises the spirits momentarily.

      The rondo-finale employs for its main subject a good-natured melody suggestive of a rustic peasant dance, interspersing its reappearances with fleeting shadows and more somber thoughts.  Although the despondency and grief of earlier movements are not completely dispelled, the music conveys at least a suggestion of hope for the future.