Turbulent Quartets

Posted on December 14th, 2009 by


Turbulent Quartets


Pre-Concert Talk-Wilton’s Music Hall-13th December 2009

Schubert’s friend Eduard Bauernfeld noted:

“Schubert has the right blend of the ideal and the real; for him, the world is beautiful.” (3 March 1826, in Franz Schubert, Music and Belief, Leo Black, Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2003, P.1)

 However events in 1820 upset his blend of the ideal and the real, and perhaps, momentarily, impinged on his music. In the middle of that year, the Police arrived at the Vienna lodgings of the student activist, Johann Senn, to find Senn, Josef von Streinsberg a law student, and Franz Schubert. All the young men were in high spirits after an evening’s drinking. The three friends drunkenly insulted the policemen. In the midst of the altercation, were joined by two more, Zechentner, and Bruchmann. Senn and Bruchmann had both been school friends with Schubert at the Stadtkonvikt

 All five clearly in their cups, were taken in for questioning. The police report was written up by the notorious Graf von Sedlnitsky. He noted that the young friends ‘chimed in against the authorised official in [stubborn and rude] tone, swearing at him with insulting language.’ (Franz Schubert Elizabeth Mackay, OUP, 1996, P.255)

 Sedlnitsky was the Imperial Chief of Police from 1817 till 1848, creating the network of spies and informers which liberals everywhere linked to Chancellor Metternich, the ‘Grand Inquisitor of Europe’. Metternich used the dossiers prepared by Sedlnitsky to wage war against secret societies, his internal ‘continuation of diplomacy by other means’, an extension of his responsibilities as foreign minister.’ (Alan Palmer, Metternich, Phoenix, 1972, P.233)

 Johann Senn languished in gaol for 14 months, before being deported. Schubert ‘the schoolmaster from Rossau’ in the police report was released after interrogation with a black eye. Schubert, clearly traumatised by the whole affair, turned to his violinist brother, Ferdinand, for comfort.

 1820 was, by his standards, a very patchy year of composition, most notable for the failure of his Zwillingbrüde at the Teater an der Wien. He never saw Senn again; this was his last brush with the wilder side of political activism brewing in Mitteleuropa.

 I have always heard something of this, his encounter with the ‘whirlwind’, in the language of the unfinished quartet, the Quartettsatz. Why did he not finish this work, which curiously, begins in a manner not unlike his great ‘unfinished’ symphony?

 But perhaps it is not so surprising. Schubert had chosen to write in C minor, the key of Beethoven’s most ‘revolutionary’ symphony, the 5th. Perhaps Beethoven’s answer to the turbulent questioning of the minor, this triumphal major trumpeting of the last movement, was simply beyond Schubert. As would be so powerfully shown in the G Major Quartet, for Schubert, the sweet turn from ‘major to minor’ was always more natural than his its opposite. He was a discontented, rather than a furious, Romantic.

 There is a clue in the poem that he wrote that year:


Leave men to me in their delusion,
Spake the Spirit of the World.

“Thus they, in their pitching tub,

Remain beholden to me.

Let them run, now questing

Far after a distant prize,

Believing much, proving much

On their gloomy trail.

Nothing of that is true

Nothing of that is a loss.

Their world order is human;

That which I know, is Divine.

Schubert 1820 (Die Schönsten Schubert Briefe-Ed. Eric Valentin, Langen Müller, Munich 1975)

The Manuscript of the Quartettsatz was later owed by Johannes Brahms, who also owned another of the unfinished works, the B Flat String Trio Movement.

 Schubert’s last String Quartet was completed two years before he died. It is very far from being a late work. As we sit and rehearse it, this music which for so many musicians, was in our ears long before it was in our fingers, the question recurs, again and again. ‘What is this thing?’

 The great cellist of the Guarneri quartet, David Soyer sums it up: “For forty-five minutes you’re stretched drum-tight. There are passages in the first movement where he’s hurling lighting bolts, and the energy and turbulence required seem to go beyond the capacity of the instruments. Even the tremolos in Pianissimo must have great dramatic intensity…Such passages are then relieved by gentle, typically Schubertian interludes of great simplicity. That juxtaposition in itself creates difficulties. Performing it is so strenuous that I doubt whether we would tour with it. The Budapest Quartet once did so and decided “Never again!” (The Art of Quartet Playing, David Blum, Gollancz, London, 1986, P. 150)

So, where did it come from, this gigantic piece?-‘The seed-corn from which Bruckner’s entire life work arose!’ (Franz Schmidt 1928). (Quoted in-Franz Schubert-Music and Belief: Leo Black, Boydill Press, Woodbridge, 2003, P. 153)

 Well, there is one clue in the music that Schubert had been listening to. On March 21st 1826 Schubert attended Ignaz Schuppanzigh’s premiere of Beethoven’s Quartet Op 130 at the Musik-Verein. This work, of course, includes the Grosse Fuge-which the opening of Schubert’s quartet, seems to references. That, perhaps, was a starting point…but…is there a link between the tremulous fury of the Quartettsatz and the ‘hurling lightning bolts’ of the 1826 G Major Quartet? Was it possible that something had happened to return Schubert to that mood? Well, here’s an idea to run with.

  One month before he wrote it, Schubert was in a total funk. Writing to Bauernfeld:

“Please don’t stay away long, it is very sad and miserable here-boredom has taken the upper hand too much already…..I am not working at all-the weather is really dreadful , the Almighty seems to have forsaken us altogether, the sun simply refuses to shine!…Appalling! Ghastly!’  (Franz Schubert Elizabeth Mackay, OUP, 1996, P.255)

But something had happened. By the end of the following month, he had completed this quartet, written in one ten day sitting. At the beginning of 1826, Schubert and Eduard von Bauernfeld had applied to join a society of intellectuals and artists, Ludlams Höhle. This society was, on the surface harmless enough, but many of its 100 members were émigrés-such as Schubert’s old composition teacher, Salieri (who would die that year), Ignaz Moscheles, and Weber (for whom 1826 was also a bad year-he died in London).

 The police regarded any private society as a potential threat, so in April, they raided the clubhouse, and a number of the initiates were put under house arrest The dramatist Grillparzer, also a member, was bemused at the police behaving as if ‘the safety of the state were at risk.’ (Quoted in: Schubert; John Reed, P 162)

 Bauernfeld and Schubert were not yet full members-they were being vetted before being allowed to join. Bauernfeld found the idea that the police might have questioned him about his political leanings, because of his membership of a society that was also making enquiries into his background highly amusing. 

However, I suspect that Schubert was far from amused. Perhaps the police raid reawakened memories of his earlier drubbing at the hands of Graf von Sedlnitsky’s goons. Perhaps that might be a partial explanation of the return to the turbulent language of the Quartettsatz.

 Naturally this was not all that was on his mind.  Eduard von Bauernfeld was involved with the translation of Shakespeare sonnets and poems for a new German edition. Schubert set three of them immediately upon finishing the quartet.

 Shakespeare had become incredibly popular as the new badge of the Romantics. In 1818, Stendahl wrote:

“I am a furious Romantic-that is, I favour Shakespeare as opposed to Racine, Lord Byron as opposed to Boileau”

  But I suspect that it was the kind of Shakespeare that Schubert chose to set-such as Who is Sylvia (an Sylvia) which was responsible for inspiring the raptures which punctuate the storms of his last Quartet. Famously, one of the other poems that he chose, was Hark, Hark the lark, whose joyful pealings, are contained in one of Shakespeare’s most ‘revolutionary ‘ plays, Cymbeline.

 Hark, hark the lark at Heaven’s gate sings,

            And Phoebus gins arise,

His steeds to water at those springs

            On chalic’d flow’s that lies,

And winking Mary-buds begin to ope

            Their golden eyes:

With every thing that pretty is, my lady

            Sweet, arise:

                        Arise, arise!

(Cymbeline II.iii.20)