Schubert, String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, "Rosamunde"

April 14, 2012

Franz Schubert, 1797-1828

String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, D. 804, "Rosamunde", 1824

Franz SchubertSchubert grew up playing chamber music with his family and composed several youthful (and quite skillful) string quartets for these domestic affairs. His mature "professional" quartets composed for public performance date from the 1820's and include the single movement "Quartettsatz", the "Rosamunde", the "Death and the Maiden", and the final epic in G major completing a lifelong set of 15 numbered quartets. Written in 1824 when Schubert was still only 27 (with only four years left), the "Rosamunde" quartet would be the only string quartet performed and published during his lifetime. Overshadowed by the more dramatic quartets that surround it chronologically, the 13th quartet is notable for its suave but dark-tinged reserve, a delicacy of atmosphere, texture and Schubert's irrepressible signature: delicious lyricism.

As he frequently did, Schubert borrowed melodic and rhythmic seeds from his other music – songs and incidental music – to crystallize a new work. These influences are detectable in all four movements, particularly the gentle song of the slow movement taken from an entr'acte for the play "Rosamunde" written a year earlier, hence, the quartet's nickname supplied by history rather than Schubert himself.

The first movement is the most intense. A wistful melody with an underlying rhythmic urgency sets a mood that is trademark Schubert: hopeful yearning surrounded by despair. Using multiple themes, flexible textures, strong dynamics and briefly alarming swatches of fugato, the music rises and falls, each new positive gesture thwarted by an ever-stronger darkness. The middle movements are much more subtle. The Andante with the theme from Rosamunde softly sings but still rises to a startling peak of anguish if only briefly. The Menuetto is a surprise: instead of a lively scherzo, Schubert writes an atmospheric character piece that only gains its rhythmic sway tentatively, demure and uncertain. Only the trio brings relief with its chaste simplicity waltzing into the light. This kinder spirit pervades the finale, surprisingly gentle for Schubert. A moderately paced folk dance with a slight gypsy influence becomes a showcase for a masterful fantasy of textures and flickering tonalities confirming the Rosamunde quartet as a subtle delicacy among Schubert's "late" chamber masterworks.

© Kai Christiansen. Used by permission. All rights reserved.