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Program Notes: Schubert and Tchaikovsky

Quartet in D-major, D. 94 by Franz Schubert
Quartet in F-major, Op. 22 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

It would be hard to imagine two more dissimilar works than these within the realm of classical music’s period of common practice.  The Schubert is simple, perhaps somewhat naïve, while the Tchaikovsky is emotionally wrought.  It’s the difference, I suppose, between a teen beginning his career in a world when classic style is fresh and one of troubled middle age who has in his sight a century of the same style that has become complex beyond its means, which, indeed, has had its very principles under assault from several quarters.  Schubert had not yet attained maturity in sonata form; for Tchaikovsky it was a hindrance.  The openings of the works are prime examples of the difference: Schubert’s quartet begins with a unison “D” before breaking a lovely tune in D-major.  (Schubert surprises us by moving suddenly to B-minor for the next phrase, the exact same shift employed by the strict classicist Mendelssohn in his “Hebradies” overture.)  Tchaikovsky , by extreme contrast, begins his work with an anguished, dissonant chord far from the home key.  This turns out to be the start of a slow introductory section of unremitting pain and harmonic ambiguity.  Even at the arrival of the main section, the music is still searching for harmonic stability.

The Schubert quartet continues in much the same vein as it begins.  Its benign, sunny lyricism shines through all four movements, virtually without a cloud.  The first Allegro and following Andante suggest the deep well of melodic invention that would ultimately flow over with some six-hundred songs, while the Minuet and Finale bubble with dancing energy and good humor.  As mentioned earlier, Schubert had not yet fully mastered classical forms, so there is occasionally either too much repetition or an uncertainty of direction.  This reminds us that the quartets were intended for family entertainment in the first place, and hardly detract from the pleasure of watching a young genius in his first efforts.

Tchaikovsky, as we might guess, does not maintain a single dominant affect through his quartet.  While the first movement retains its dark, brooding aspect, the second is a bright ballet, a happy scherzo with a proper trio.  It also has a very different texture from the other movements: the first violin carries the tune almost all the way through, with only the second violin given a solo turn in the slightly slower dance of the trio.  It the other three movements, Tchaikovsky spreads the wealth generously, though the first violin is given numerous solo riffs.  The slow movement reverts to the romantic pathos of the Moderato.  We can hear the lament of the prima donna, answered by her paramour (otherwise known as first violin and cello).   Second violin and viola join in with their own thoughts to make the movement a full-scale operatic quartet of sorrow and loss. An extended middle section brightens the mood considerably; here the quartet impersonates a large chorus in its huge crescendo.  Tchaikovsky had not reached the depths of melancholy that produced the Symphonie Pathatique (SP?).  Proof of this is the finale in the major mode, full of vigor and strength.  Included  are two terrific Russian-style melodies, wonderful virtuoso writing for the group, a heroic conclusion….and a slightly less wonderful fugue as development.  The term “over the top” had not yet been minted.  That’s why we have our great Russian who deigned occasionally to write chamber music.

Fred Raimi

January, 2013