Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


A Genre of Two Halves? Schubert’s String Quartets Reimagined

Anne Hyland

‘Schubert didn’t write many quartets, did he?’ was a question I faced with surprising regularity through the writing of this book. Beyond such Schubertian staples as the ‘Death and the Maiden’, ‘Rosamunde’ and G-major quartets, and the String Quintet in C, my interlocutors were often of the shared opinion that Schubert wrote little else in the genre, or if he did, that it wasn’t worth knowing (otherwise we would already know it). This might have suited me well: writing a book on a small handful of acknowledged masterworks which have delighted audiences and critics for generations would have been comparatively straightforward. But, it’s simply not the case. Nor is it even close to the reality. I wanted to set the record straight and, in so doing, to acknowledge and celebrate the breadth, variety and – yes – the naivety and bold experimentation which characterises the full spectrum of works Schubert penned in this genre, and which contribute so vitally to who he was as a composer of instrumental music.

In most musical circles, Schubert is thought to have left fifteen string quartets to posterity. That number includes the three aforementioned quartets alongside the incomplete Quartettsatz in C minor (1820) and eleven complete quartets written when he was a teenager between 1810 and 1816 for his family ensemble. To that number can be added a host of works lost during the nineteenth century, such that the actual figure is more like twenty-two (Schubert’s early biographer, Otto Erich Deutsch, puts it at ‘about 20’). These works were lost essentially because the editors of the first ‘complete’ edition of Schubert’s string quartets (chiefly, Eusebius Mandyczewski) made the decision to publish only one example from the composer’s earliest period of composition, actively omitting other contemporaneous works. Why is this important? For one thing, the edition inadequately represents the diversity evident in Schubert’s earliest works and obscures a fuller understanding of his juvenilia in this genre. But perhaps more egregiously, it set the stage for the marginalisation of Schubert’s early quartets (the ones that hadn’t disappeared completely) for generations to come. By the time these works eventually saw the light of day, in 1890, musical tastes had moved on: no longer were quartets the preserve of skilled amateurs performing at home or in a semi-private setting among friends and fellow enthusiasts (Liebhaber). Consequently, the early quartets became orphan works, belonging fully neither to the Viennese Biedermeier in which they were written, nor to the later century to which they were, at best, curiosities of a bygone age.

This historical isolation was simultaneously an analytical one. If the early quartets were invisible for a long time, they effectively remained so, even after their appearance in print. This was because generations of critics, scholars and performers never found sufficient reason or attraction in them to encourage close engagement; without any real examination, they were variously dismissed as ‘very strange’, ‘poorly handled’ and ‘unworthy of the genius of Schubert’. As a result, in an academic context, theories of Schubert’s approach to form and harmony in instrumental genres were developed without recourse to a body of music that had so much to tell us. Despite the composer’s relative inexperience, these youthful works are an analytical treasure trove, revealing many of his formal strategies years before he would learn to put them into practice in a more developed sense from the Quartettsatz of 1820 onwards. Exploring these works is a hugely rewarding experience. Admittedly, this is not music that requires revival for the sake of it, nor is it music that has been entirely neglected (although it isn’t heard in performance half as much as it ought to be), but engaging with it intellectually and seeking to understand it deeply brings untold rewards and insights into Schubert as an instrumental composer. It is impossible to appreciate fully his late quartets without considering the strategies at play in the pre-1820 works.

Analysis of the first movements of the earliest quartets, D.18 and D.94, for example, reveals traces of processual tendencies such as functional transformation and functional retrogression – strategies that were to become central to how Schubert’s music manipulates our sense of time in the later works. Moreover, a striking feature of the early quartets is their tendency towards generic hybridisation which often gives rise to idiosyncratic formal designs. This wasn’t something Schubert learnt from Beethoven or Haydn, but was prominent in the quartets of some lesser-known composers of very different lineage. In Chapter 2, I explore this contemporary repertoire, showing how the quartets of Joseph Mayseder (an erstwhile popular Viennese violinist and composer) reveal affinities with those of Schubert in terms of their cross-fertilisation of styles and daring harmonic and formal designs. Even though they were predominantly written to showcase Mayseder himself, these works provide a new and unfamiliar formal context for understanding some of the more interesting generic influences present in Schubert’s early chamber music. They are also part of a much broader historical picture of string-quartet performance and publication in Vienna in the first decades of the nineteenth century which is still little understood or appreciated today.

Alongside my obvious desire to bring the early quartets into musicological consciousness, is a broader aim to explore one of the most celebrated aspects of Schubert’s music: its innate and profoundly affecting lyricism. In contrast to existing accounts of the phenomenon in Schubert’s music which tend to emphasise the beauty and memorability of his lyrical themes, I focus on how lyricism functions on a formal level in the string quartets. Doing so allows me to re-evaluate the relationship between lyricism, development and teleology in this music, and to move beyond the strict dualisms that currently characterise that relationship towards a more fluid, multifaceted approach which acknowledges their permeability. As such, Schubert’s String Quartets is less a study of Schubert’s quartets per se than it is an attempt to open up space to allow these works to challenge some of the discourses (analytical, aesthetic, historiographical, ideological) that have historically epitomised them. Attending to Schubert’s quartets therefore involves not only rethinking the composer’s instrumental lyricism, but also confronting the calcification that has surrounded some of the most basic (and arguably most treasured) concepts in which the discipline of musicology trades. In other words, in acknowledging the lyric’s status as an autonomous formal category with identifiable processes and temporal implications, this book challenges some of music history’s most tempting, but also most damaging, legacies.

Schubert’s String Quartets: the Teleology of Lyric Form provides a historical overview of Schubert’s string quartets, as well as the quartets of some of his more obscure contemporaries in Vienna whose music paints a very different picture of string-quartet composition and consumption than one might expect of this era. The book couples this broad view with an in-depth study of the quartets themselves, especially their first movements, exploring and explicating their articulation of a lyrically conceived teleology. Ultimately, it offers a reframing of Schubert’s string-quartet oeuvre as central to the development of a decidedly nineteenth-century conception of lyric form.

Schubert’s String Quartets by Anne Hyland

About The Author

Anne Hyland

Anne Hyland is Senior Lecturer in Music Analysis at the University of Manchester and Associate Editor of Music Analysis. Her work on Schubert has appeared in leading international ...

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