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EXPLORING MUSIC: Can You Ask for More? Lindsay String Quartet Plays Schubert

The MHS Review 395 Vol. 11 No. 17, 1987

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David M. Greene


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The official canon assigns 15 string quartets to Schubert--one fewer than Beethoven wrote in a shortish lifetime

that was nearly twice as long as Schubert's. In fact Schubert wrote or began at least 20 all told, some of which have vanished, others surviving as fragments. The earliest ("no. 1 ''), a work that wanders uncertainly from one key to another, was a product of his 14th year. Five years or so later he had tallied up three-fourths of his known total. And he didn't make a plug groschen on the lot. Nowadays, of course, an adolescent of like age can one-finger a tune ( of sorts) on his synthesizer and retire a millionaire.

Of the canonical 15, the first 11 are juvenilia, whatever wonders they may con­tain from one so young. They are frankly what Hindemith termed Gebraucbsmusik (utility music), meant for amateurs to play at the hearthside of a winter's evening; some of them were, in fact, school exer­cises. (Imagine assigning today's high schooler a string quartet to write!)

No. 6 in D major, for example, was writ­ten at the behest of Antonio Salieri. We know, because the Italian signed it as ap­proved. Schubert seems to have gotten along fine with Salieri, who apparently did nothing to hasten his untimely end. No poison, no mask-and-domino. Perhaps he considered Schubert (5' 3/4 ") too short to bother with.

Quartet no. 11 was written sometime in 1816. Then there was a hiatus of four years before the composer returned to the medium for the first of what are regarded as the four mature quartets (none of which, however, was the product of that incredi­ble last year at which I have marveled fre­quently here).

The 12th Quartet got off to a splendid start with a sonata movement that begins and ends in C minor, but modulates through several keys en route. What ap­pears to be the first theme, however, turns out to be an introduction which does not return until the coda. That completed, Schubert launched into a slow movement; but after he had written 41 bars, he shelv­ed the thing for whatever reason and never returned to it. Perhaps he was so over­whelmed by his own musical maturity that he felt he could not live up to it.

Schubert was, of course, the songwriter par excellence and so it is not surprising that some of his instrumental works have their origin in themes from the songs. In 1817, he set a poem by Mathias Claudius (recently dead) called Der Tod und das Madchen (Death and the maiden). It is a dramatic dialogue in which a young girl finds herself unexpectedly in the presence of the Grim Reaper. Terrified, she begs the "bony man" to go away and not to touch her. Calmly and inexorably the spectre, to funereal chords, commands her to take his hand, promising her that he means well and that she will sleep peacefully in his arms.

Schubert wrote several songs that year on death--An der Tod (To death), Der Jungling und der Tod (The youth and death), etc. This may have been a mere reflection of a theme popular with the "graveyard" school of poets, though George Marek in his Schubert (New York, 1985) feels that it may have arisen from an awareness that even at 20 "comes the blind Fury with th' abhorred shears/And slits the thin-spun life."

Seven years later he completed his penultimate quartet in March. The second movement is a remarkable series of varia­tions on the "death" chords from the song that has conferred its title on it. Some think this, the best known of all the Schubert quartets, to be wholly concerned with death, seeing the tarantella-like finale, for example, as a kind of Totentanz, and the opening movement as a depiction of a death-struggle, but this is probably wishful thinking.

Though I admire it greatly, the Lindsay Quartet has been given its lumps by reviewers in the past. I am therefore delighted to report that the latest Penguin Guide says that "many listeners may count them [the Lindsay's members] first choice." Why? The first movement is "intense, volatile, urgently paced," the variations are "equally imaginative and individual," the finale has "winning bustle and energy." Can you ask for more?

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