A distance of nearly half a decade separates the last string quartet composed during Franz Schubert‘s prentice years and the first he wrote as a fully mature composer. This is the String Quartet in C minor, D. 703 of December 1820, popularly known as the “Quartettsatz” because only a single movement of the piece was finished — putting it in the same celebrated and lengthy catalog of unfinished Schubert compositions that includes the famous B minor Symphony of 1822.
The “Quartettsatz” marks something of a coming of age for Schubert. The instrumental compositions written before the new decade all somehow lack the individuality that marks Schubert‘s lieder from 1815 onward; with the “Quartettsatz,” Schubert begins to find ways to fuse the instrumental heritage he absorbed during his years as a pupil of Salieri with those compelling dramatic aims which, for years, he had no way of corralling without a text.
The “Quartettsatz,” D. 703 shares something besides its unfinished status with the famous B minor “Unfinished” Symphony: an introduction built of fluttering, insecure string figurations. In the Symphony, these are hesitant and mysterious; in the “Quartettsatz” they boil with passion, beginning pianissimo with the solo first violin and then swelling to a massive fortissimo climax. In many ways, the rest of the piece is a series of similar swells from one dynamic extreme to another — the music pulsates with gritty passion, nervous fury, and soaring ecstasy, and little room is made for more temperate gestures.
That the movement is an example of some type of sonata-allegro form is clear; just what the formal boundaries of this advanced sonata design are has long been a topic of considerable discussion. If we back up and take a fresh look at the piece, however, Schubert‘s plan is plain to see.
We can easily follow the broad divisions of sonata form: an exposition that begins in C minor and ends in G major, a development section that eventually makes its way back to a landscape that we recognize as belonging to the exposition, a retooling of the myriad thoughts of the opening, and finally a brief reprise of the introductory “fluttering.” The fact that Schubert‘s first substantial melodic idea — a lofty idea that spans two full octaves in the first violin — appears in A flat major rather than the tonic C minor, and reappears first in B flat major and then in E flat major as the recapitulation begins, is a matter that only a hard-boiled formalist will lose sleep over; indeed, such intentional formal obfuscation and overlapping is something that Franz Liszt would soon pick up on and transform into a whole new style. Some measure of peace is found in the repetitive, chorale-like music that acts as a coda for both the exposition and the recapitulation, but in the end, it is the nervous wreck in Schubert that wins out.