Schubert String Quartet No. 13 in A Minor, D. 804, "Rosamunde"

“Time was when I spoke of Schubert reluctantly, and then only at night to the trees and the stars.”

Robert Schumann (1838)

Think you’re too busy to tackle all those projects you’ve put on the backburner? Schubert would suggest you think again...

Over the course of his very short life, the ‘Prince of Songs’ - Franz Schubert - wrote well over 1,500 pieces of music. These included more than 600 songs, 7 complete symphonies (and numerous incomplete ones, such as the famous B minor “Unfinished” symphony), 2 large song cycles, more than 100 chamber and piano works, more than a dozen theatre works, and a decent number of sacred works. In the single year of 1815 the 18-year-old Schubert penned more than 20,000 bars of music, averaging 55 bars a day - all while dealing with a load of rowdy seven-year-olds as a teacher at his father’s primary school.

But productivity alone doesn’t justify Schubert’s reputation as the genius who bridged the gap between the revolutionary Beethoven and the full-blown romanticism of Schumann, Brahms, Wagner, and the like; it’s Schubert’s melodies, which spin out in perpetual motion, that set him apart. These melodies are the key to the formal structures around which music was increasingly built during the lead-in to the ‘Romantic’ era. Particular melodies could signify a change from one part of a piece to the next, acting as milestones in the journey from the piece’s beginning to its end. Schubert’s mastery of this use of melody is something for which he’s justly famed.

And now to the String Quartet in A Minor, nicknamed Rosamunde, which the Portorius quartet is playing for us. This piece is written for a traditional string quartet, comprising of two violins, a viola and a cello. Schubert composed the piece in 1824, a date that was particularly significant for him for two reasons.

The first is that Schubert’s health had been in severe decline during the previous year - he was suffering from the early symptoms of syphilis, and realised for the first time that he was most likely dying. Death, however, was a subject that he would deal with later - in his Death and the Maiden quartet, which he wrote shortly after this one. Instead, in the Rosamunde quartet, Schubert’s writing is more upbeat; though intense in places, it is tempered by considerable warmth.

The second, and perhaps more significant, reason is that 1824 was the year that Schubert first devoted himself entirely to instrumental music, temporarily putting aside his beloved genre of voice and piano. Before this point he had poured most of his energy, both intellectual and physical, into writing opera. For one reason or another, however, all those projects, as well as his incidental music, failed to gain a solid footing on the Viennese stage - perhaps because, at that time, Italian music was proving more popular. By 1824 Schubert must have realised that he would have to write instrumental music to be recognized as a respectable composer in the very competitive Habsburg capital. The resounding success of this quartet, a mature return to the quartet-writing of his adolescence, suggests that his bet paid off.


(Above is the manuscript of Schubert’s incidental music for the play Rosamunde, which also gave the A minor quartet its nickname. The writing suggests a composer whose hand is struggling to keep up with his inspiration...)

The Rosamunde quartet gets its name from its second movement - Schubert had originally used the movement’s theme in his earlier, operatic work, Rosamunde, Fürstin von Zypern (Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus). The tune, a perfect illustration of Schubert’s virtuosic melodic writing, appears in the Entr'acte No. 3. (which you can listen to here). As the American conductor Michael Tilson Thomas summarised nicely in this little talk, it’s a tune that’s so easy and spontaneous that it’s hard to imagine that anyone ‘composed’ it; instead you feel that, somehow, it’s always existed. This is something that’s often said of Schubert’s music - the simple beauty of his melodic lines defies description. Have a listen, and you’ll see what we mean.

Another feature of this melody that’s worth noting is its ‘dactylic’ rhythm. The term ‘dactylic’ is borrowed from descriptions of rhythm in lines of poetry, and means a long note/beat followed by two short notes/beats. Beethoven, who was a source of inspiration to Schubert throughout his life, uses this rhythmic feature prominently in his Seventh Symphony - in fact, some have suggested that this is where Schubert got the idea for the rhythms of his quartet.

The third movement of the quartet is a minuet in A minor - a gentle Viennese waltz that has won over generations of audiences. In this movement you’ll notice another feature that occurs again and again in Schubert’s 1824 compositions - ‘cyclic writing’. In cyclic writing, the composer uses a musical motif (which could be, for example, a melody or a rhythm) to link together two or more different parts of a larger piece and create the impression of unity. In this quartet the third movement contains a motif that goes on to introduce and dominate the following, final movement. Schubert also uses cyclic writing in the Death and Maiden quartet, where he takes a motif from the piece’s main theme to tie the whole piece together.

Interestingly, the reason cyclic writing works is because it taps into the way our memory operates - by re-introducing familiar tunes it reinforces our feeling for the music. In the same way, modern songwriters repeat specific tunes and rhythms throughout their songs to get you hooked and humming them incessantly. It’s the same with classical music - for example, you might recognise this particularly famous example of cyclic writing from the start of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. We challenge you to get that ‘dum-dum-dum-duuuum’ theme out of your head any time soon...

A final tidbit about the Rosamunde quartet. Schubert dedicated it to the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, who was no ordinary musician - among his pupils had been a young Ludwig van Beethoven. It was Schuppanzigh’s string quartet, the very first professional group of its kind, that premiered many of Beethoven’s chamber music pieces. Schubert had begun to attend salons at Schuppanzigh’s house regularly in 1823, the year before he composed this quartet. At these salons he heard performances of pieces by the classical trinity of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and absorbed musical ideas from these old masters like a sponge. The connection between Schuppanzigh and Schubert benefited both parties, but more so the ill, poverty-stricken composer, whose works were at that point known only to a small circle of friends and amateur musicians.

Schubert was to die only 5 years after composing this piece, at the tender age of 31, and it is perhaps for this reason that Schubert is often associated with melancholy. The tragedy of his premature death is best expressed in his epitaph: “The art of music has here interred a precious treasure, but yet far fairer hopes”. But perhaps that’s not the right note to end on; let’s look instead to Schumann’s 1838 essay on Schubert, quoted at the beginning of this note. It concludes:

Nothing is to be gained from speculation about what might have been. He did enough. And all honour to such aspirations and such achievements!