FRANZ SCHUBERT – A Late String Quartet – No. 15

Franz Schubert [1797-1828] was an Austrian composer who died before his 32nd birthday. He wrote over 20 string quartets but only 15 were ever published. I was tempted to discuss his most popular quartet, No. 14, known as Death and the Maiden but the overuse of it in the world has made me all DATMed-out. I decided to go with No. 15 in G Major which has a posthumous opus number, but was written in 1826.

The work opens with a series of flourishes before settling into the merest hint of a melody. Ever so slowly the full melody is brought to the fore. The opening flourish returns, this time with a reworked repeat of the exposition, and not for the last time. Then follows several sections where the opening melody is presented in various ways, ranging from the serene to the hectic. Some of the writing is orchestral-like. The whole movement appears to be a set of harmonised versions of the exposition, at different levels of intensity, together with brief interludes between the variations. Each time the melody comes back in a new and exciting way. There is a secondary theme that is a variation of the exposition which is also reworked several times. A loud variation concludes the movement. This is magnificent music making! The piece has run for 15 minutes, but more on that later.

A most genteel melody introduces the second, andante movement. After a time, a variation is introduced, then it is back to the exposition. A loud section follows, which develops into the sound of quivering violins. The volume returns, followed by a period of calm where the theme reappears at a leisurely pace. There are constant changes of key during these many variations and some of the writing is again orchestral. Now the music breaks into a tempo and an extended delightful melodic passage ensues. The music fades to an end.

The third movement begins at a sparkling tempo, all of the instruments are very busy, but the violins dominate. This passage is more rhythmic than melodic. A new mood appears without the rhythm; it is very conversational and quite charming. The texture thickens and leads into a most attractive section. A key change extends the mood. Then we are back to the opening theme, with plenty of energy which races to an ending.

The final movement begins at a jaunty allegro tempo, which continues in a rhythmic fashion for most of the piece. A simple, rapid melody dominates proceedings. The accompaniment is strong here. There are alternating passages at half tempo where the melodies change their pace and intensity for lighter colours, contrasting with the stronger rhythmic passages all around them. The piece fades, then ends with two huge chords.

Just something about the first movement. I reviewed the Melos Quartet version which runs for 15 minutes. I also have the Quartetto Italiano version which runs for 22 minutes. The reason for this discrepancy is that the Italiano observe the exposition repeats which are instructions by the composer to repeat basic themes. It is quite common for string quartets not to perform all of these.

It has been quite an intense experience discussing this work; its orchestral scope is just so powerful. To me the centrepiece of the quartet is in the first two movements. It’s a marvel how Schubert can present and re-present the melodic material in so many beautiful ways. They are both stunning movements. Words cannot do justice to the music and I feel that I have have merely skimmed over the surface of this magnificent piece.

Amazon UK has over 400 versions of this quartet. I can recommend the Italiano on a 2-CD recording, The Last Four Quartets, which includes Death and the Maiden and a famous single movement work, Quartettsatz, all for an incredibly reasonable price.

Quartet No. 15 can be heard on Spotify, YouTube and earsense, which has many versions, including the Melos Quartet.

Listenability: Magnificent early Romantic composition.


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