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PROGRAM NOTES: Jerusalem Quartet

by Eric Bromberger

String Quartet in A Major, Opus 14, No. 3

Born June 8, 1810, Zwickau, Germany
Died July 29, 1856, Endenich, Germany

Schumann’s marriage to the young Clara Wieck in 1840 set off a great burst of creativity, and curiously he seemed to change genres by year: 1840 produced an outpouring of song, 1841 symphonic works, and 1842 chamber music. During the winter of 1842, Schumann had begun to think about composing string quartets. Clara was gone on a month-long concert tour to Copenhagen in April, and though he suffered an anxiety attack in her absence Schumann used that time to study the quartets of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Clara’s return to Leipzig restored the composer’s spirits, and he quickly composed the three string quartets of his Opus 41 in June and July of that year; later that summer he wrote his Piano Quartet and Piano Quintet. Writing string quartets presented special problems for the pianist-composer. The string quartets are his only chamber works without piano, and–cut off from the familiar resources of his own instrument–he struggled to write just for strings. Though he returned to writing chamber music later in his career, Schumann never again wrote a string quartet.

The Quartet in A Major, composed quickly between July 8 and 22, is regarded as the finest of the set and shows many of those original touches that mark Schumann’s best music. The first movement opens with a very brief (seven-measure) slow introduction marked Andante espressivo. The first violin’s falling fifth at the very beginning will become the thematic “seed” for much of the movement: that same falling fifth opens the main theme at the Allegro molto moderato and also appears as part of the second subject, introduced by the cello over syncopated accompaniment. Schumann’s markings for these two themes suggest the character of the movement: sempre teneramente (“always tenderly”) and espressivo. Schumann’s procedures in this movement are a little unusual: the development treats only the first theme, and the second does not reappear until the recapitulation. The movement fades into silence on the cello’s pianissimo falling fifth.

The second movement brings more originality. Marked Assai agitato (“very agitated”), it is a theme-and-variation movement, but with a difference: it begins cryptically–with an off-the-beat main idea in 3/8 meter–and only after three variations does Schumann present the actual theme, now marked Un poco Adagio. A further variation and flowing coda bring the movement to a quiet close. The Adagio molto opens peacefully with the soaring main idea in the first violin. More insistent secondary material arrives over dotted rhythms, and the music grows harmonically complex before pulsing dotted rhythms draw the movement to its conclusion.

Out of the quiet, the rondo-finale bursts to life with a main idea so vigorous that it borders on the aggressive. This is an unusually long movement. Contrasting interludes (including a lovely, Bach-like gavotte) provide relief along the way, but the insistent dotted rhythms of the rondo tune always return to pound their way into a listener’s consciousness and finally to propel the quartet to its exuberant close.

String Quartet in D Minor, D.810 "Death and the Maiden

Born January 31, 1797, Vienna
Died November 19, 1828, Vienna

In the fall of 1822 Schubert became extremely ill, and every indication is that he had contracted syphilis. The effect on him–physically and emotionally–was devastating. He was quite ill throughout 1823, so seriously in May that he had to be hospitalized. His health had in fact been shattered permanently, and he would never be fully well again. The cause of his death five years later at 31, officially listed as typhoid, was probably at least partially a result of syphilis. Emotionally, the illness was so destructive that he never went back to complete the symphony he had been working on when he contracted the disease–it would come to be known as the “Unfinished.”

By early 1824 Schubert had regained some measure of health and strength, and he turned to chamber music, composing two string quartets, the second of them in D minor. The nickname Der Tod und Das Mädchen (“Death and the Maiden”) comes from Schubert’s use of a theme from his 1817 song by that name as the basis for a set of variations in the quartet’s second movement. In the song, which sets a poem of Matthias Claudius, death beckons a young girl; she begs him to pass her over, but he insists, saying that his embrace is soothing, like sleep. It is easy to believe that, under the circumstances, the thought of soothing death may have held some attraction for the composer.

The quartet itself is extremely dramatic. The Allegro rips to life with a five-note figure spit out by all four instruments. This hardly feels like chamber music. One can easily imagine this figure stamped out furiously by a huge orchestra, and the dramatic nature of this movement marks it as nearly symphonic (in fact, Gustav Mahler arranged this quartet for string orchestra in 1894, and that version is still performed and recorded today). A gentle second subject brings a measure of relief, but the hammering triplet of the opening figure is never far away–it can be heard quietly in the accompaniment, as part of the main theme, and as part of the development. The Allegro, which lasts a full quarter of an hour, comes to a quiet close with the triplet rhythm sounding faintly in the distance.

The Andante con moto is deceptively simple. From the song Der Tod und Das Mädchen, Schubert uses only death’s music, which is an almost static progression of chords; the melody moves quietly within the chords. But from that simple progression Schubert writes five variations that are themselves quite varied–by turns soaring, achingly lyric, fierce, calm–and the wonder is that so simple a chordal progression can yield music of such expressiveness and variety.

After two overpowering movements, the Scherzo: Allegro molto might seem almost lightweight, for it is extremely short. But it returns to the slashing mood of the opening movement and takes up that same strength. The trio sings easily in the lower voices as the first violin flutters and decorates their melodic line. An unusual feature of the trio is that it has no repeat–Schubert instead writes an extension of the trio, almost a form of variation itself.

The final movement, appropriately marked Presto, races ahead on its 6/8 rhythm. Some listeners have felt that this movement is death-haunted, and they point out that its main theme is a tarantella, the old dance of death, and that Schubert also quotes quietly from his own song Erlkönig. Significantly, the phrase he quotes in that song sets death’s words “Mein liebes Kind, komm geh mit mir” (My dear child, come go with me), which is precisely the message of the song Der Tod und das Mädchen. What this movement is “about” must be left to each listener to decide, but it is hard to believe this music death-haunted. The principal impression it makes is of overwhelming power–propulsive rhythms, huge blocks of sound, sharp dynamic contrasts–and the very ending, a dazzling rush marked Prestissimo that suddenly leaps into D major, blazes with life.