Franz Schubert’s String Quartet No. 9 g minor D. 173

Schubert's Brille

By SCHUBERTcommons (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The Era

Schubert’s String Quartet No. 9 in g minor, D. 173, is one of his early works. Among his string quartets it is the very first in a minor key – and probably one of the most underperformed string quartets amongst his great ones.

Written in 1815, when Schubert was only eighteen years old, it fell into a political atmosphere which was a fertile soil for chamber works to be performed in domestic venues. The defeat of Napoleon in 1814 and the resulting Vienna Congress in 1814/1815, was exactly the time while young Schubert was composing prolifically and created this quartet. The eyes of Europe were on Vienna while the Congress was held, “and native pride, wit and fashion rose to the occasion”[6]. “Romantic Bourgeois values, as national cultural heritage, were held in high esteem, and music was an intrinsic part of it. Almost everybody sang and plaid or listened to music”[6]. As a result, notwithstanding the high demand and the huge popularity of Opera, in particular Italian Opera, music was predominantly performed in private circles. Chamber music was ubiquitous and coveted as means of acting out Bourgeois values.

This became even intensified during the post-Napoleon Metternich Era, in a climate of suspicious surveillance and drastic measures against potentially revolutionary motions – a model  of a surveillance state. People withdrew into the security of their private homes, expressing themselves in politically innocuous arts. Romantic chamber music was amongst it.

The Composer

Born on January 31th, 1797 in Vienna, Austria and died on November 19th 1928, Schubert’s short life fell almost precisely in the transition from the Classical to the Romantic period. His childhood started in Beethoven’s middle period, at time at which the great German composer  had  already changed the classical sonata form into something more subjective and emotional.

Franz Schubert was the son of a schoolmaster. He got basic musical training from his father and his brother and was an extraordinary talented choir boy. He received an excellent education in a convent and got musical tuition from prominent teachers, like Antonio Salieri.

The most interesting fact about his life as a composer is that he was the first Western composer who actually earned his living without any patronage. In dire times without income he was sometimes supported by his friends. An ephemeral income came in 1818, when he was offered the position of a music tutor for the daughters of the Esterházy family in their Hungarian summer home. Later, a more stable source of income came. After his friends had already made Schubert’s manuscript known to him, Vienna’s most significant music publisher, Anton Diabelli, began to publish his works sporadically. Alas, this string quartet was not among those.

The Background

String Quartet No. 9 belongs to Schubert’s legacy of 30 chamber works, among them 15 string quartets which survived, some missing and one fragmented string quartet.

The piece emerged in a period in young Schubert’s life in which he had, on the one hand, financial security, but, on the other hand, found himself in a personally unfulfilling job towards he was indifferent. He had finished a two-year training as school teacher in 1913/14, and after that became a tutor for little boys in his father’s schoolhouse – his only option for making a living.

Musically, the period of 1814/1815 was a very prolific time. Schubert’s created a score of works, more than 200 in total, among them two symphonies, two piano sonatas numerous songs and pieces for the stage – but also two string quartets in a series of six, in the timespan from 1813 to 1816. String Quartet No.9 occupies a special role among his string quartet insofar as it is the very first string quartet centered in minor key.

The short time in which it was composed – scant eight days – reflected the compositional productivity of this period of Schubert’s life. This striking productivity may have been due to his youth combined with the fact that in those years he did not have the rich social life he would have later, after becoming acquainted with his cosmopolitan friend Franz Schoenberg. Furthermore, a dispute about his fervent love to a local girl, Therese Grob, having added to his compositional outburst in this years endures.

String Quartet No. 9, of which no dedication is known, appears originally intended to be performed in more more than just private venues – unlike many of Schubert’s pieces, in particular his “Lieder”, which where meant to plaid in private homes and by hobbyists.

Nevertheless, for a long time  it never transcended domestic use. The first performance after its creation was privately by Schubert’s family – like many of his others works. After that, the piece had been neglected by the musical community until half a century later, posthumously in 1863, it was premiered in public at last, and finally published in 1871. Little is known about the back then public reception.

A Closer Listen

String Quartet No. 9 features a classical four-movement structure

I. Allegro con brio (ca. 7 minutes)
II. Andantino  (ca. 7. minutes)
III. Menuetto. Allegro vivace (ca. 4 minutes)
IV. Allegro (ca. 7 minutes)

with the first two movements in sonata form, the third one a minuet and the last one in rondo form.

In the first movement, a fast and brisk sonata movement, features two themes making for a contrast between a dramatic minor key theme -in the home key G-minor- and a brighter major theme in B-fat major. It is a contrast between heaviness and lightness, between menace and cheerfulness. This contrast is plaid out twice in the exposition and recapitulated in reversed tonality in the last part of the movement. This consistent play is only briefly interrupted in an unusually short development section, which leans towards the menace: look out for some tremors and crescendi (swelling notes) in the cello, viola and the second violin, while the first violin repeats a short melodic motif. Apart from this short interlude, the chase between dramatic menace and melodic cheerfulness determines the bulk of first movement.

Equally salient is the symmetric trajectory in terms of tonality. We are lead from a gloomy minor key to a cheerful major key during the first four minutes, as a once repeated exposition, and are lowered back to the minor key in the recapitulation, when the same thematic play is resumed in the last three minutes of the movement.

The slow second movement features a sonata form as well, and it takes up the rope of the previous B-flat major, thereby cleverly ushering in its contrasting character. The second movement is more melodic and cheerful, and it presents a neat, almost danceable main theme, in contrast to a more sentimental side theme, which nevertheless appears almost like a variation of the major theme. This movement has a thematic and emotional consistency, and the also very short development section, creating a hovering atmosphere and lasting only for a few measures, only adds to this impression. The already extremely short development section has no character of its own, being merely a transition between the exposition and the recapitulation of the interaction between major and side theme.

The buoyant minuet movement is reminiscent of the corresponding movement in Mozart’s G-minor symphony and is actually a tribute to it. Along with Schubert, we pay respect and admiration tor Mozart’s influence.

The fast last movement presents itself traditionally in Rondo form. The rhythmic refrain in which the violin does most of the work is presented four times. The sections between them appear in part like variations or developments of the refrain material and is interspersed with short Baroque passages. As unusually usual as this might seem for a last movement, in particular against the background of Beethoven’s revolutionary middle period, with its penchant for withholding the emotional climax to the last movement, this shows Schubert’s reverence to the classical period and a precocious matureness already in this younger years.

References:

Curtis Performes, Schubert Quartet No. 9 in G minor, D. 173
http://curtisperforms.curtis.edu/#/video/quartet-no-9-g-minor-d-173-1-allegro-con-brio
http://curtisperforms.curtis.edu/#/video/quartet-no-9-g-minor-d-173-2-andantino
http://curtisperforms.curtis.edu/#/video/quartet-no-9-g-minor-d-173-3-menuetto
http://curtisperforms.curtis.edu/#/video/quartet-no-9-g-minor-d-173-4-allegro

[1] Composer Biographies, GroveMusic
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/education/schubert.html

[2] Wikipedia, Franz Schubert
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franz_Schubert#Early_life_and_education

[3] AllMusic, Franz Schubert String Quartet No. 9 in G minor, D. 173
http://www.allmusic.com/composition/string-quartet-no-9-in-g-minor-d-173-mc0002371095

[4] Kammermusikkammer, Franz Schubert: Die Streichquartette
http://kammermusikkammer.blogspot.de/2010/03/franz-schubert-die-streichquartette.html

[5] Franz Schubert – String Quartets
http://www.franzpeterschubert.com/string_quartets.html

[6] Famous Composers, Franz Schubert, Documentary
Part 1: http://youtu.be/QOeS93VATck
Part 2: http://youtu.be/dpBcnPUkLmU
Part 3: http://youtu.be/CIWLIQVSNmA

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1 comment
  1. Great essay. I’m doing the Curtis course myself right now, and have chosen Schubert for the biography and programme we have to then do on the music as a follow up. Your links are helpful, thanks for this blog! I’ve got quite a few music books for the biography, which I will read and see what they say about the Quartet- there isn’t that much online about them ( well not in English). I also did the Beethoven sonatas course last year.

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