There were at least eleven early string quartets by Schubert, intended for performance within the Schubert family-and-friends circle. The breakthrough, if you will, came in 1820, with the Quartet Movement in C minor, D. 703, in which the notion of comfortable domesticity is left behind once and for all, to be replaced by agitation, tension, and strife-ridden chromaticism. With this single completed movement he felt he had reached a creative cul-de-sac in this genre, indicated by the four-year hiatus between D. 703 and his next string quartet, the present, largescale work, D. 804, of 1824, the year in which he later wrote his intensely dark “Death and the Maiden” Quartet and, in startling contrast, the lighthearted Octet heard on this program.
There is no obvious musical point of departure toward this new emotional and stylistic world, no single “transitional” work prior to the passion that inhabits D. 703, and the still deeper emotionalism of the A-minor Quartet. There can be little doubt, however, that the composer’s bouts of ill health – with a diagnosis of syphilis in 1822 – and possibly a blighted love affair were major contributory factors.
The A-minor Quartet was first performed in July of 1824 by its dedicatees, the members of the Schuppanzigh Quartet, which had premiered most of Beethoven’s quartets. It would be the only one of Schubert’s chamber works published in his lifetime.
Schubert scholar Maurice Brown, writing in 1958, notes: “The Quartet in A minor is a beloved work; in some way we group it with the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony as giving us the heart of the composer. But with the quartet as with the symphony, it is doing him an injustice to let the emotional directness, the poetry, the sheer beauty of the musical sound… prevent admiration and appreciation of his technical power: power used with masterly ease in development and formal construction.”
“Rosamunde,” the nickname usually employed for the A-minor Quartet and the theme of its graciously serene second movement, has its origins in a theme from Schubert’s incidental music for a play of the same name and which is again used for one of his D. 935 Impromptus for solo piano.
Herbert Glass has written for many publications in the U.S. and abroad and was for 15 years an editor-annotator for the Salzburg Festival.