Understanding Music

Schubert’s Quartett-Satz in C minor.

Yet it is in its way one of the most poignant and emotional of his works for the medium, and one that in no way strikes the listener as provisional or incomplete. It is also pervaded by a strange ambiguity that infects the form, the key and the mood of the piece.

It is a sonata movement without a proper first subject, starting and ending in C minor but for the most part in or around A flat major, gripped by icy pincers at both ends, but radiant and sunny whenever the only real melody sounds. The ambiguity is enhanced by the opening motive, which slides around the chromatic scale whenever it appears, and seems to be peculiarly foundationless, like a bridging passage with nothing to bridge.

Schubert began writing string quartets at an early age, and is responsible for two or three of the greatest masterpieces in the idiom, as well as for the exquisite C major string quintet which may very well be the most lovely chamber work in the whole classical repertoire. Like all his mature works the Quartettsatz is supremely lyrical but never cloying, with its main melody locked in a grim and rueful setting like a bright jewel in a ring of iron. This is the soul that Schubert constantly shows: the outpouring of love and life in the midst of apprehension. And it is surely why we treasure his greatest works as much as we do: they are all of them, and all in different ways, triumphs of life over death. In all of them there shines a clear and unaffected affirmation out of the heart of darkness. And the Quartettsatz is no exception.

As in so much of Schubert, we are being invited to make choices. Music is a realm of freedom. We can choose to hear as a theme what is really an introduction, to hear as an accompanying figure what is really a leading motive, and so on. And right from the beginning Schubert is presenting us with material which we can hear in radically contrasting ways – either as a theme, or as an introduction; either as a clear statement of what the quartet is all about, or as a prelude, from which the subject matter will emerge when properly prepared. And as the movement unfolds that ambiguity becomes ever more deeply embedded in its structure.

The piece opens with a tremolando figure in C minor, which moves chromatically, first downwards to G, and then soaring upwards, to include every note of the chromatic scale except the one most antipathetic to C, namely D-flat. So far this is what you might expect – a chromatic scale used to affirm the key of C minor, tightened by the tremolandos to produce the typically Schubertian sense of apprehension, and avoiding the D flat which would render everything ambiguous. However the passage ends on that very D flat – and not just the note: the chord of D flat major, held tight in the grip of C minor only because arranged over an F in the bass. To cap it all Schubert gives us two bars in which the first violin does nothing save descend the arpeggiated chord of D flat major – impressing it on us as though it were D flat, not C, that were the principal key.

I have described the effect in somewhat technical terms, but you don’t need the technicalities in order to hear what is going on. It is as though a spirit had arisen out of turbulent clouds and suddenly burst forth into the light – the clouds formed from the key of C minor, the spirit itself, released at last, being in the negation of C minor, namely D flat major. (Major negates minor, and D flat, being removed by a semi-tone, negates C.)

The violin lands from that bright chord back in the darkness, on B natural and in the key of C minor. For 12 bars the movement stays in that key, using the theme, such as it is, of the tremolo passage, and moving always chromatically, until once again the first violin lands on D flat and leads the other instruments in a gentle modulation to A flat major, the dominant of D flat. There then begins the first real theme of the work, a beautiful, serene melody that has been entirely released from the darkness in which the work began.

Schubert was a master at sudden key changes and modulations, and the entrance of this melody illustrates the natural way in which he moves from place to place on the scale. However, the melody also reinforces the experience of ambiguity. Is this the first subject or the second subject of the movement? It enters like a first subject, clearing the air after all that chromatic preluding. But since when did a movement in C minor have a first subject in A flat major? But if it is a second subject, then it ought to be in the dominant of the key – which means it ought to be in G. But it is a semi-tone away from G, in A flat, which is the dominant of D flat major. So if we read back to the opening passage, assuming this is the second subject, that opening passage ought to have been in D-flat major. It wasn’t of course – but this A flat melody is reminding us that, concealed within the C minor cloud of the opening passage, was a trapped spirit in D flat major, which burst out briefly in a life-affirming arpeggio, and was then recaptured as it fell to earth. So yes, the opening passage really was an introduction, and this A flat melody is the theme for which it was preparing the way.

The melody is repeated an octave higher, and occupies the longest continuous section of the exposition, concluding finally, after some characteristically Schubertian elaborations, on the chord of A flat minor and a return of the tremolando. The cloud returns, with terrified-sounding scales on the first violin, pressing on the key of A flat minor, until shifting adroitly to a passage which is (more or less) in G, though with once again heavy emphasis on the note (A flat) removed by a semitone. This chromatic bridging passage finally settles on G major, and a new melody enters, and one that raises all the questions raised by the previous theme. Is this the second subject? The key of G major would suggest that it is; but then what of that theme in A flat: was that just a passing idea, of no significance, even though it is the theme that every listener remembers and sings to himself as he leaves the concert hall?

One thing to notice about this G major melody is the way in which the semi-tone conflict – between G and A flat, and between C and D-flat – has by now penetrated the whole structure of the piece. It has become part of the musical argument, so to speak. Throughout the melody the viola and cello go on muttering on adjacent semi-tones, creating a slippery chromatic path on which the melody can scarcely gain a foothold. Hence, despite its clear outline and open-hearted charm, the theme doesn’t stand firmly before us, and soon gives way to a chromatic passage reminiscent of the opening, moving through C minor to A flat before settling on G major to bring the exposition to a conclusion. The violins and viola ascend bird-like above muttering semitones on the cello, the melody here recalling Schubert’s setting of Goethe’s poem, Ganymede, in which the poet compares himself to the boy captured by Zeus, soaring upwards in the Eagle’s grip.

The exposition has presented us, then, with four ideas: a tremolando motive in C minor; a smiling melody in A flat major, and another, somewhat more precarious in G, and running through all this a chromatic contest, between keys associated with C, and keys associated with D-flat, played out in all kinds of ways in the various melodic lines. The basic feeling is of something serene and life affirming trapped in clouds of apprehension, from which it briefly frees itself only to be trapped again, but released and ascending skywards at the end, before plunging back to the beginning, as the exposition is repeated.

As it plunges for the second time, into the development section, the music lands in A flat, and picks up a phrase that had first appeared as an elaboration of the original A flat melody – the melody that might have been first subject or second subject, depending how you heard what had preceded it. This phrase is developed for a while over the by-now familiar chromatic mutterings on the cello, until D flat major appears once again out of the mists, with a soaring motive on open fifths that is promptly answered by a clenched dominant seventh chord, This chord is used in such a way that the cello can play C and D flat in alternation for four bars, so that we get the point. Schubert is telling us that this movement is in D flat major and the icy grip of C minor is something from which we have by now been freed.

The material so far presented is developed in a variety of ways, Schubert using all his skills at modulation to bring the exposition to an end in an appropriate key. Except that the key is entirely inappropriate. Assuming the C minor tremolando from which we began was the first subject, we should be coming back to that motive, and in the home key. But we don’t come back to that motive, nor do we come back to the home key. Schubert ends the development in D. Then, after four bars of weird hesitation for solo violin introduces the recapitulation in B flat major – not with the tremolando first subject (if it ever was the first subject!) but with the sunny melody that first appeared in A flat and which sounded like the first subject then.

Everything proceeds as before, with the cheerful theme moving on to E flat, and plunging at the end to E flat minor. From this point on the recapitulation moves towards C in just the way the exposition moved towards G, so that, soaring upwards at the end, it presents us with a quiet C major chord, high in the heavens. But the cellos go on muttering for two bars. They know that this kind of escape into bliss is only temporary, something from which we will always in the end be wrenched away. The first motive returns, giving us again the notes of the chromatic scale assembled tremolando around C minor rising to a crescendo and reaching what should be, by the rules of classical harmony, the chord on the second scale degree – D. But no! There is a wrong note: what should be D is D flat, and the chord is that of D flat major, appearing for the last time, defiant, despairing almost, to be promptly hit on the head by a perfect cadence in C minor.

I don’t think you can be in much doubt about the meaning of this piece. It is not telling a story; it is showing a posture towards the world, and showing it by using a form – that of the sonata-form first movement – in some way against itself. Everything about this movement is sonata-ish, and yet nothing quite obeys the rules. It breaks the rules in just the way that feelings break through the habits in which we have imprisoned them. The melodic material is emblematic of a joy and tenderness that refuses to be captured by the grief and apprehension that enclose it, even though the grief and apprehension are its own. The music is showing, through the sincerity and completeness of its chromatic logic, how fears and griefs can be overcome. We can learn to experience them as the frame, and not as the picture. It is as though the D-flat planted in the heart of this music expands to fill the centre, leaving C minor as it were clinging to the edges, containing everything but having no part in the drama. And that is how we should live.

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