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Schubert's Quartet in G major for Strings, D. 887, Op. 161

November 1, 2022

On this week's lecture, resident lecturer Bruce Adolphe discusses Schubert's Quartet in G major for Strings, D. 887, Op. 161. Featuring a performance by The Calidore String Quartet (Jeffrey Myers, Ryan Meehan, violin; Jeremy Berry, viola; Estelle Choi, cello).

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Welcome to the Inside Chamber Music Podcast presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. I'm Bruce Adolphe, resident lecturer at CMS, where I started the lecture series in 1992. In 2011, we began livestreaming the lectures on our website. The audio for this podcast comes from the ever growing archive of videos made available live and on demand at ChamberMusicSociety.org.

We look at the music from a compositional perspective and find parallels in novels, plays and poetry. Plus, we explore historical context.

And, with live musicians in the studio during the lectures, we experiment with performance issues.

And this Inside Chamber Music podcast features Schubert's Quartet in G Major for Strings Deutsch 887 Opus 161, played by the Calidore String Quartet. It was recorded on Wednesday, October 13th, 2021. Hello and welcome to the Rose Studio at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center for another inside Chamber Music. We're going to be looking at Schubert's string quartet, his last quartet in G major Deutsch eight eight, seven.

He wrote it in 1826 and died two years later at the age of 31. The piece wasn't premiered until 1850. 22 years later. Generally, Schubert was a vigorous, happy, positive person, but he developed syphilis at age 25 and also seems to have had a disease called cyclothymia. This isn't 100% proved, but it seems to be true.

It's a mild kind of bipolar disorder and he was often depressed, which led to lots of drinking and occasionally even violence in terms of breaking plates and dishes in bars and restaurants. He had many friends, but he often lost his friends, especially later on, because of his mood swings. And he's been described by people who knew him as having a dual nature. Really being kind of a bipolar personality.

Amazingly creative, considering how much music he wrote by 31. So he couldn't have been depressed that often because he just wrote so much music. But if you think of the nature of Schubert as suffering and joy, his pieces really embody that. He wrote in his diaries and letters many comments about the relationship between happiness and sadness, between sorrow and misery and joy and hope.

For example, he wrote, "Pain sharpens the understanding and strengthens the mind." He also wrote, "What I produce is due to my understanding of music and to my sorrows. That which sorrow alone has produced seems to have given me the least pleasure in the world." But the quote that seems to mean the most in terms of Schubert that I'm going to come back to many times as an image. It's from his friend, the playwright, Eduard von Bauernfeld who wrote,

"There were times when a black winged demon of sorrow and melancholy forced its way into Schubert's vicinity." A black winged demon of sorrow and melancholy. What does that mean in terms of music? Well, Schubert's music really does have a binary feeling of misery and joy in a way that no other composer really quite captures.

And that means he had to have a technique to address it. And in the G major quartet, especially in the slow movement, which we're going to look at in great detail, he actually discovered a new kind of harmonic technique, which later was developed by composers way after Schubert. I mean, it appears a little bit in Liszt, becomes a method with Rimsky-Korsakov and you find it in Ravel and Debussy and Stravinsky, but in Schubert?

Now, I have to say I'm a little bit on my own here. Not everyone agrees with this, but I'm quite convinced that in order to portray this black winged demon of sorrow and melancholy, an expression he never heard because Bauernfeld wrote it many years later. But that image, that idea of misery and sorrow and fear, in order to do it, Schubert needed a new harmonic language just for that.

I mean, what is technique and composition? Technique and composition is the ability to use the skills you have and the vocabulary you have as a composer to say something in particular. So the technique is about conveying an image. It's not counterpoint or knowing harmony or what mode you're in. It's about using the language of music to speak.

And sometimes a composer needs to find a new way to say something because it's so profound and such a personal thought. That's how music changes. That's how the history of music evolves. Composers trying to say something very particular. So I will prove to you that Schubert had a vision that basically foreshadowed the music of later times, and, in particular, a technique that is referred to as octatonicism.

Now getting to the bipolar feeling, or at least just call it the dual nature, the simplest way a composer can do that at that time was to juxtapose major and minor in some way. A major chord (music) and a minor chord. Let's hear the opening of the first movement of this quartet. And you will hear how Schubert, with just major and minor and dynamics, creates an incredibly powerful binary of joy turning into sorrow of an attack of terror in the midst of what could have been contentment. (music)

Thank you. Yes. So there you see right at the beginning of the first movement, a G major chord, which is the key of the piece. Immediately with a crescendo becomes G minor and then its dominant D major becomes D minor. So he's setting up this polarity right from the beginning. In the slow movement, he goes much further and arrives at this new kind of vision of harmony that I was describing.

Let's turn to the slow movement. Now, it begins with a beautiful song-like section, which keeps coming back. And of course, Schubert was known in his lifetime, and even now, primarily as a song composer. He wrote 600 songs, about 190 or so were published in his lifetime, which was quite a lot. But his greatest contributions are really these chamber music pieces that are so profound.

But in order to have the drama and the opposition, this binary opposition of sorrow and hope, of fear and contentment, of stability and instability, you need to have something to work off of. So this opening folk-like melody, which is extremely pretty and very Schubert and has gorgeous moments in it, is simple and repetitive because it's like life which is going to go wrong.

In other words, it's kind of this simple part of a daily life that is going kind of the way you want it. Now, it is in a minor key and minor is not always sad. That is certainly not what I want to convey. So, here, minor is sweet, maybe bittersweet and very delicate. Let's hear the opening tune of this bittersweet song at the beginning of the slow movement. (music)

Alright, thank you. And now, of course, there is, like you would have in a song, a kind of B section. And the B section has a slightly odd harmonic quality to it in that there's a low C in the viola, which is the lowest note of this passage, and gives the scale a feeling of being in the Lydian mode.

He's really in E minor but by putting the C on the bottom it sounds Lydian and that keeps coming back. Now, Lydian mode is not something Schubert necessarily thought about. Beethoven had used it once. It's a mode with a raised forth, otherwise it's major. (music) But it's also E minor with a C on the bottom. This is a hint, kind of a sonic hint, that something strange is going to happen because it already is a little bit off center.

Let's hear that B section with this nice low C in the viola. (music) Thank you. So in that last phrase, he does briefly go to C major, which all he had to do was lower (music) that F sharp to F natural. He had a very sensitive ear and in a very simple, sensitive way by changing one note, he visits C major briefly and then goes back to E minor.

Now here is where everything changes. So far it has been bittersweet, beautiful, kind of calm, but it's about to change and become terrifying. And this is where Schubert will introduce a new idea of how harmony works. But I think we need to hear some of it first, and then I'll begin to explain how this works. (music)

Great. Thank you. Thank you. I hope that was terrifying for you. A lot of unexpected things. Now, we are living in the 21st century, so some of the strangeness of that may not seem as strange. You have to enter the world of the piece, which if you are an experienced chamber music listener, of course you enter the world of the piece.

Like if you read a novel by Charles Dickens, you enter that world. And what's amazing and strange in that world is strange to you, even though you live in the 21st century. So one of the strangest aspects of what you just heard were these two notes. (music) Because they don't change, even though the harmonies are changing and he's moving away from any key or strategy of sense of key or mode where those two notes fit.

At first they come out of this (music) and up here a G and a B flat. Now, this is what you heard. (music) It moves to C-sharp minor. Not quite fitting in. Then to B-flat minor. Absolutely doesn't belong there and it's very dissonant, but it's not budging. And then to G minor where those notes do belong in the key, but the way they sit there does not fit with the way the chords unfold.

So it's extremely dissonant. To me, it is the black winged demon of sorrow and melancholy hovering in the air. Now, I know Schubert didn't even know that expression. He didn't need it. He thought in music. But what he has there is something that won't budge. Something that is inevitable. Death. He knew he was going to die young, probably from syphilis.

He was aware of how ill he was, wrote about it a lot. He did write that he was going to beautify miserable reality by his imagination, which is what's happening here. But it's not just these two notes that don't move. It's also the fact that the keys we go through, C-sharp minor, B-flat minor, G minor, have no normal relationship to each other at that time.

Now, they do relate. These minor thirds, C-sharp minor, B-flat minor and G minor. They do relate in the octatonic mindset, the octatonic scale, which is a scale (music) of eight notes instead of seven. Major and minor have seven before it comes back. This is eight and it's made up of two diminished seven chords. Now I'm going to get a little bit technical, so if that's good for you, great.

Otherwise get the larger picture, which is that it's built on two symmetrical chords which give us eight notes. There's only one more of these chords left that is not being used that gives us 12 notes. So the octatonic scale is comprised of two diminished seven chords. Now what's interesting about it is the possibilities of harmony that it generates.

Like if you're in a major key and you go up the scale with chords, you have a major chord, a minor chord, a minor chord, a major chord, a major chord, a minor chord, and a diminished chord Anything else you play is an alteration of those facts with sharps and flats. Maybe referring to another key and you normally have relationships of fifths, especially five one, one of the most common cadences in all of Western music.

But in the octatonic scale, the mode you can't play five one. It's not in there. It doesn't exist. But what does exist is an extremely interesting palette of chords on each of the lower notes of these two diminished chords, which is separated by a half step. On each of these nodes, you have a dominant seventh chord, a minor seventh chord, a half diminished seventh chord, and a diminished seventh chord.

Which also means you have a diminished chord, a minor chord and a major chord. And if you go up a minor third, you get it again. And if you go up a minor third, you get it again and again. So the relationships are minor thirds apart so that the chord progression Schubert used of these keys, fits in the octatonic mode.

Now he did go in each case to its dominant, which is a way of stabilizing what he's doing. It gives it a sense of place to have a dominant. Now, if Schubert did that once, you would say, "Well, that's a strange idea that occurred to him." In this piece, he does it twice, which you could say, "Well, that's classical symmetry," but he does it three times.

And by doing it three times each on a different step, he is using all of the octatonic possibilities. There's no other explanation in my mind for why he would bother to have two of them next to each other, and then another one later. He wanted to cover the complete spectrum of possibilities, which means that he somehow understood with his brilliant ear and his musical genius, that there was a way of connecting chords by minor thirds that no one else had used that could be used to structure the terror and the fear and portray the black winged demon of sorrow and melancholy through a musical technique.

Now, I want you to understand a little bit more about how strange this is, because most examples of octatonicism come much later. For example, here's one of Debussy, very simple chord progression. (music) It's E major and G minor, they're a minor third apart. I could keep going with this piece, but it's a song called Bon Soir. It has octatonic possibilities in it.

Now, Stravinsky used it a lot, so I'll start with a little Stravinsky. This is from Firebird. (music) That progression, two dominant seven chords, a minor third apart. We know that he was thinking in octatonicism because he learned it from Rimsky-Korsakov. This famous moment from Petrushka. (music) Those chords are not just any dissonance. They are a tritone apart, which major chords, a tritone apart don't exist in major or minor keys, but they are the basic essence of the octatonic system.

Another example, Tchaikovsky. Now, Tchaikovsky didn't do anything as dramatic, believe it or not, as Schubert in his use of this. He probably was completely unaware of it, but he did move occasionally by minor thirds like this. (music) Symphony number four, moving in minor thirds, just the way Schubert did differently, but the same idea. Now, here's something very close to Schubert, but written 60 years later by Rimsky-Korsakov from Scheherazade.

It starts with an a major chord (music) becomes an A dominant seventh. Now think of this as (music) because it's not going to change very much. As the chords go in minor thirds, just like Schubert. The next one from A up to C, a minor third and then F sharp dominant seventh. So we have F sharp, A, and C just as Schubert had minor thirds and something is not moving. It's very different sounding music and in the Rimsky-Korsakov that hovering cadenza above fits interestingly with every harmony, but the Schubert doesn't.

So the Schubert is more dissonant. The Schubert sounds more modern than the Rimsky-Korsakov. The Petrushka chord exists before Petrushka, but also in the same year as Petrushka, you can hear it in Ravel. Here's his L'heure Espagnole. Same chord, (music) but a whole sequence of them and then the scale itself, the octatonic scale, appears clear as a bell in Ravel.

Oh, I like that. (music) There it is. Now, let's get back to the Schubert for a moment. So we've heard that he does this progression. (music) With a lot of dissonance, we don't know where we are. We land on C-sharp minor, which he solidifies with its dominant. That would already be fairly dramatic coming from where he was in G minor, but then to B-flat minor and it's dominant.

I hope that sounds different to you now having heard that other music and then B-flat minor dissonance and then back to where we started in G minor. Now, you would think, "Okay, that was pretty dissonant. Let's go and stay in a key for a while." But, no. He doesn't. What he does... (music) He does the whole sequence again down a half step. (music)

So what you just heard was basically two incarnations of that idea. The first one that we had heard before, and then the second one a half step lower. So he's given us two octatonic situations and there only are three possibilities if you do the transpositions. Just three. So we will get the third, which to me is evidence that Schubert, somehow, in musical thinking, figured this out in order to say what he wanted to say.

You know, one of the things Schubert wrote in his diary is that what he creates, he creates by his musical understanding and his sorrow. He actually says that. And then he says what he created by sorrow alone displeases him. Musical understanding and sorrow. So he wasn't some intuitive composer only who just gushed out music. Very few composers that we love do that.

They tend to think and have emotional qualities united in their technique. So there's a kind of phase of composition which is like awake dreaming. So perhaps Schubert had this vision. Not the black winged demon of sorrow and melancholy, because it's visual and words, but a vision in music. A vision that was startling of chords moving and progressions that no one had ever done before.

And he didn't know what to make of it. But then, with his musical understanding, he figured out that this divides the chromatic spectrum in three ways. He understood that because of his great genius, his musical ear. No one had done it before, but he saw that clearly because he had his dreaming idea and then his thinking about it.

Einstein said the same thing about how he worked. He said that he had dreams which became thinking. The dreaming is awake and you just allow your mind to envision, to hear, to see, whatever, with no control. But then, as Einstein said, when you start to group things together and you're thinking. So that's exactly what happened. Schubert had some kind of aural vision of a chord progression that was terrifying to him because it was moving in a strange way through keys in a way that he had never heard before.

But then he thought about it and realized there are three possibilities, and he did all three. Now, at the end of this passage you just heard, he sneaks back into the tune. And we need that. He's done two dramatic octatonic sections of terror of the black winged demon of sorrow and melancholy. And now he comes back to the bittersweet tune, which feels a little bit more like relief, like real life.

In other words, there's a nightmare, and then there's getting on with it. So let's hear some of that. But you'll notice that in the cello, there's what's called a pedal point, a repeated tone that doesn't go away. That's a traditional pedal. In other words, it's not this. (music) It's not two notes that won't go away, but a pedal is strangely similar to that.

But it's very traditional and a very old fashioned technique. But it does seem to say something will not go away or something is inevitable or inexorable. Let's hear. (music) Okay, great. Now, one of the things that starts to happen is we get some canons, self imitating music, one tune being imitated a moment later and you have to ask when you're listening to music by a great composer like this, why is there a canon there?

And you can't always answer it. But I think there is a reason because Schubert doesn't just play around with techniques. He's not only intuitive, as I said, he thinks. And he himself said it's his musical understanding and his sorrow. So a canon has to mean something. And if you think that the interruptions, these nightmares, are perhaps his cycllothymia, his mild bipolar disorder interrupting his life, or maybe it's his awareness that he's going to die young because of the progress that syphilis was making, whatever it may be, it gets in his mind and he can't stop thinking about it.

So we have the terrors, but we also have the feeling of being caught. And the canon is a technique that has built into it the idea that you can't get out of it. Once it starts, it repeats and follows. A canon is a little bit like destiny. Something starts and inevitably it's picked up. And how do you stop it?

You can, of course, but in this case it stops with another terror. (music) Okay, great. Thank you. The canon there was a small one, but they get bigger. The cannons are like, in a way, they're like earworms, as if the tune wouldn't leave. Like we all know what an earworm is, but in this case, it's a thought, too. And it's not just a melody.

It's a thought about life and death. But what we need now is the third incarnation of this octatonic nightmare. The third appearance of the black winged demon of sorrow and melancholy. It comes exactly the same way, transposed exactly where it needs to go. And that kind of transposition doesn't happen by accident. This is a very worked out thought through technical strategy meant to complete the possibilities of the harmonic spectrum. These totally, totally is the right word.

He's totally constructing three octatonic relationships, covering all the chromatic aspects of it. (music) Great. Thank you. So now he's done it. The nightmare, the terrifying music appears three times each in the right transposition to give us the complete spectrum of octatonic possibilities. In 1826 it doesn't appear at all. For many years later. You can find something like it in Liszt, but it's not really the same.

It's not organized as well and not intellectually as clear. Probably wasn't as clear to Liszt who was experimenting, whereas this doesn't sound like an experiment. It's completely understood. It's amazing. Now let's go to the coda of this beautiful movement where the folk song comes back. And at least for now, in this movement, Schubert gets a hold of himself and is able to calm things down.

And end in e major instead of E minor. It's a beautiful ending. The nightmare is over, at least for now. There is, however, lurking in the cello, this little phrase (music), which eventually ends in major. But this is the same thing backwards. Is this. (music) Those are the notes we had. We could keep going. But that minor third represents the octatonic scale, and the nightmare is lurking in the cello as we move towards some peace.

Remember, Schubert said that he wanted to beautify this miserable reality as much as possible by imagination. Let's hear the end, going into E major. (music) Because of the music we look at his life. Can we be sure that this music is about suffering from syphilis, awareness of death, his mild bipolar disorder, his depression? You know, it could be about something else entirely.

The same playwright who coined the phrase the black winged demon of sorrow and melancholy, Bauernfeld also wrote the following, "The police in general and censorship in particular weighed on us all like a monkey we could not get off our back." Another image. This was the Metternich secret police. Some of Schubert's friends were arrested. Schubert spent a night in jail.

The artists and musicians and poets were considered a threat to the government. Maybe this is what he's writing about. So is it a demon with black wings or is it a monkey on his back? Well, maybe it's both. But whatever it is, once it's manifested as music, it's not Schubert's life. It's ours. Thank you. (music)

We hope you enjoyed the podcast. Visit ChamberMusicSociety.org to watch videos of these lectures as well as masterclasses and concert performances. And while you're there, check out the calendar of upcoming Chamber Music Society events in New York and around the world. See you next time.