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Liebesfreud: Music

Franz Schubert (1797–1828); Quartet Movement in C Minor, D.703 (1820)

Anyone even slightly familiar with classical music will probably find the words “melody” and “Schubert” inextricably associated; you can’t say one without thinking of the other. This limitless outpouring of magical, intoxicating tunes (in their equally magical, intoxicating harmonic settings) represents one of the supreme miracles of Western civilization and a composer could hardly be blamed were he to spend his life drawing from this torrent of inspiration and ignoring the challenge of abstract musical thought embodied so powerfully in the instrumental works of Haydn, Mozart, and (for Schubert, especially) Beethoven.
Schubert didn’t. From the somewhat anarchic experiments in his early (1810–’15) string quartets—written, after all, for himself and his family—to the overwhelming masterpieces of his final two years, he strove as single-mindedly as Beethoven to generate compositional processes that would wring every last drop of meaning from his materials. (That he asked, literally from his death-bed, to hear played the C# Minor Quartet, Op. 131, of Beethoven—that uncompromising genius’s most obdurate, heroic feat of large-scale organization and integration—is of more than sentimental significance.)
Along the way, he achieved some amazing results. In 1820, for instance, thirty-odd years before anyone knew that there was such a thing, he wrote the only perfect "symphonic poem" (a large, single-movement work comprised of several contrasting but related sections): the “Wanderer” Fantasy. A few months earlier, he’d tossed off this Quartet movement.

By 1820 most of the great Sonata movements had been written (only Beethoven, Schubert, and, eventually, Brahms and Dvorak sill had a few dozen, in total, to contribute) so that the listener’s or player’s (usually listener and player were the same person) expectations of what ought to happen in one had been substantially developed. This movement’s externals are conventional enough; there are, obviously, an exposition (repeated), a development, a recapitulation, and even a brief coda which re-iterates the very beginning.
Finding one’s bearings within this seemingly normal structure is another matter. Many questions are raised and their answers are rarely clear, but the ambiguities are not whimsy; they are deliberately and precisely plotted and the source of the movement’s disruptive power. From the initial scurrying of one violin to the final, crushing, fortissimo cadence, its trajectory is that of an arrow to its target—a tragic conception realized completely in ten minutes’ music.
Could it have been this feeling of completeness that persuaded Schubert to leave it as a torso? He began an Andante in A flat but soon gave up on it, much as he had on the Scherzo of a certain B Minor Symphony…