The Ninth Wave by Ivan Aivazofsky
I used to have fun searching for the right artwork for my diaries, especially with the Romantic pieces. For today's work, the Schubert String Quartet #15, I looked for something with turbulent water, a subject of which there are no shortage of Romantic paintings, that having been one of their favorite subjects. The title, The Ninth Wave, refers to the marine myth that waves come in sets of nine, and the highest of them all is the ninth wave.
Normally, I would associate Schubert with a more human portrait, because his music is so intensely human, as is, for example, today's appetizer, Schubert's Swan Song.
Standchen by Schubert, Beatrice Berrut and Camille Thomas
More Schubert below...
Listening to the above, we can notice two important characteristics of Schubert's music. First, notice how melodic his music is.
We had a discussion in comments a few weeks ago when somebody asked what I meant by "melodic." Fair question! I don't have a Grove's Encyclopedia, so I can't give you the definitive answer. But a melody has a beginning and an end. It's linear, going from left to right, not all vertical entanglement like a fugue. And it speaks. The Classical Era composers were not great composers of melodies for the most part. They focused on short motifs that could be chopped up and recombined in various ways and used as glue and cement in construction of a larger work. Like... Da da da DAAAH! for instance. Beethoven himself, as great a composer as he was, bemoaned the fact that he felt he had never created a single really great melody. The Romantics would change that.
The second thing we notice about the above piece is technical. It's the constant shifting back and forth from major key to minor key. You don't have to be a music theorist to catch it, although it might be more obvious now that I've pointed it out. This was one of Schubert's favorite techniques, especially in his later works. It lends his music a bittersweetness, a combination of two contrasting flavors. He will use that in today's music as well, but with a different end in mind.
Was Schubert a Romantic or a Classical composer?
This is an old debate. I might as well weigh in, right? One definition of Romantic Period music is everything composed between the death of Beethoven and the Death of Mahler, a definition that's both sloppy and neat. Schubert's one of the more problematic composers, though, because he falls on the cusp.
For instance, there's this, the Allegretto from his Symphony #3. How would you categorize this?
That's VERY classical in style. In fact, it reminds me of Haydn's Clock Symphony, one of the defining yardsticks of what is Classical. Similar orchestration, same loving attention to the woodwinds, every note clear and meant to be heard in the back row, same playfulness with the strictness of a ticky-tocky rhythm.
Schubert's "Late Period"
... And then we get to Schubert's later works, the works that came after he had experienced setbacks and failures. Schubert died at the age of 31. At least Mozart lived to 35, something Schubert could have aspired to. His life had not been a notable success, at least not while he lived. His health had deteriorated throughout most of the 1820s until his death in 1829. A physician who saw him described his symptoms as those of mercury poisoning, which was pretty much synonymous for syphilis, because mercury was the only treatment (and not as effective treatment) for syphilis.
Thus it's strange that we can talk about the "late period" of a composer who only lived to be 31. Schubert was just getting started. He was still taking music lessons when he died.
Schubert is part of that club of alumni that were present in 1824 for the first performance of Beethoven's Ninth symphony, one of the reasons I'm focusing on him today. It's interesting to see in Schubert's music of this period the wake that had been left in the waters by Beethoven's Ninth. Schubert is buried, at his own request, next to Beethoven in Wahring Cemetery in Vienna, the epitaph reading: "The art of music here entombed a rich possession; but even far fairer hopes. Here lies Franz Schubert." A recognition that even greater works might have been yet to come.
This is my second diary on Schubert. I did his String Quintet a couple of years ago, and I hope that I've improved in my diary-writing since then. (Probably -- that's how these things usually go.) I fumbled for descriptions of the form and poured lavish praise on it, hoping my enthusiasm might make up for my clumsiness. The String Quartet #15, Schubert's last quartet, ranks up there with the quintet as one of the jewels of Western civilization, a reason for us not to give up on the whole human experiment and start culturing Anthrax in our garage.
The pros and cons of culturing Anthrax
What? You've never thought about culturing Anthrax in your garage? Ah, you're still innocent.
I had an instructor from China one time, who told our class about how on a recent trip to a part of Asia on business, he had encountered a number of armless children with begging bowls seated outside the ticket counters. The airline workers warned him not to give them any money. Why? Because gangs were deliberately cutting off the arms of children just so they could use them in this way, setting them up as little begging ATM machines.
So that's the human race. Schubert's String Quartet #15 and children as ATM machines. It's a tough call. I suppose you could do like the Olympics and throw out the best and worst scores, but the extremes are more important than the middle in defining us.
About the String Quartet #15 in G.
I'm only going to do the first movement. It's long and very intense and the whole quartet would require a second diary. Which it deserves, but it hadn't originally been on my list of works that I wanted to spend weeks on. It's still fair game if somebody wants to finish the quartet up.
And it's easy for me because, once again, (Yay!) I get to whip out my snazzy blue graphic explaining Sonata-Allegro form, a graphic I made to save myself typing.
For Sonata-Allegro form junkies, like me (and you too, I hope), this is a red, raw meat. One review of the quartet explained the form of the movement this way:
In a unique approach to sonata form, Schubert seems to co-evolve both theme areas in successive waves as each interrupts the other while internally growing more elaborate. Far more “development” happens in the traditional areas of exposition and recapitulation than the literal development section itself, which is relatively brief by comparison. Instead, there is contrast, expansion and variation in an endless matrix of sudden contrasts in modality, texture, dynamics, rhythm and mood. It is not until the last few bars that the battle finally yields to a briefly stable victory for G Major.Like many famous pieces of music, Schubert exploits the chord progressions of The Circle of Fifths
Before your eyes glaze over, RELAX. This is a momentary music theory lesson for dummies. Most of the music you know and sang in school uses just three chords. If you're singing a song in C (the letter at the top of the circle,) the the other two chords are F and G, the chords to left and right of C in that pic. No other chords in that song. All of Hank William's Sr. songs, same deal. Likewise, if the song was in some other key, like A, we can see that the two companion chords in the pic are D and E. That's because there is a natural harmonic relationship between chords that are exactly a fifth interval apart from each other. Like C and F or G.
Sometimes, though, you get really cool chord progressions that don't stop at one step to left or right, but just keep going to the right around that circle, like C then G then D then A... It's one of those things that gives Bach his characteristic sound. Think of the Eagles' Hotel California, a classic Circle of Fifths progression song.
The whole song is based on that chord progression. Dinking around with my recorder flute, I can hear it starting in F# (bottom of the circle), then moving one step counter-clockwise to B, then two steps to A, then one step to E... Eventually it gets back to F#, as any well-behaved song does.
This is not unusual. Circle of Fifth chord progressions are very cool.
One of my favorite examples of the same, the theme song from the James Bond flick, You Only Live Twice (my vote for the best Bond music of 'em all.) Listen.
So Circle of Fifths chord progressions are cool and not unusual. They pose a musical problem, though, in that you have to get back to where you started somehow, and you can get lost in the wandering chords. Schubert always gets back, but to begin the quartet with a Circle of Fifths, and make it, in fact, the CENTRAL FEATURE of the quartet, makes it edgy and turbulent. This quartet is both uplifting... and unsettling.
Just a quick note: It says on the video that I made that the quartet is in G minor. Actually, it's listed for programs as a quartet in G major. Because of Schubert's minor/major mixing, it's not always clear.
Schubert's String Quartet #15 in G Major, D. 887, First movement, Allegro molto moderato, The Melos Quartet
And so we begin with an opening motif, a long held note beginning softly and then rising in volume, to be chopped off, very abruptly. The first time, in G. Then again, in D, a fifth higher. This is the foundation of the quartet. There follows a settling back into G major to prepare us for...
Exposition: First Theme (0:35)
A violin begins the first theme. Notice the tremolo in the background, the other instruments creating a shimmering, mystical effect by playing the same note very quickly, basically by shaking their hands quickly as if with palsy. The cello then repeats the violin's statement.
At 1:27, the trembling ceases, and a bold unison statement is made of the first theme with the sweeping opening motif of the introduction, and here, a further wandering by fifths, as the music builds towards a stunningly beautiful mini-climax at 1:58.
As we make a gentle landing from that, a new theme is introduced at 2:24. NOTICE how Schubert puts a very obvious seam in the music here, to say, "That part is different from this next part for some reason." The new theme is gentle but hesitant.
At 3:21, this theme begins to morph and lose its gentleness. We begin a number of chord progressions by fifths again, the music becoming tense and anxious. Where is he taking us? It's restless, searching, until about 3:34, when we seem to find refuge in a stable place, arriving at the second key, D Major.
Exposition Second Theme (3:54)
Notice how the music's character changes here, Schubert's way of putting another seam in the music, to distinguish parts.
The cello now plays a theme in D major to the accompaniment of plucked strings. It's really the same as the previous one at 2:24, but with a a sober confidence as the cello presents it.
At 4:23, as the cello ends its statement, the anxious traveling circle of fifths music returns in full agitation briefly, but then, at 4:47, we return to the cello's statement. It's less confident in tone, and the anxious skittering of the violin in the accompaniment further undermines that.
At 5:45, as we reach the end of the exposition, it trails off into formless mumbling. What next?
This is one of the best development sections ever in chamber music. That's what's next.
At 6:09, the shimmering tremolo of the first theme returns for the first time in a long while. Almost angelic by contrast, isn't it? We're now in the distant key of E flat, if you care about that stuff.
The formless mumbling returns at 6:33. Whatever it's saying, it's not satisfied. It carries us away to a new key (E major).
At 6:55, we settle down, and we repeat the shimmering first theme again. Are you happy now?
NO. Rage and despair! (Beginning at 7:12). Listen to the cello especially here, and if you can't hear it well, crank up your bass, as it just saws its heart out in the background. The sweeping motif of the introduction returns, and this time it sounds furious.
But, ah! At 7:29, a ray of sunlight appears, if only briefly. Is there a way out of this mess?
NO! We haven't hit bottom yet. Not even close. We take some more battering from the introductory motif. The repetition here is a cue that that we're reaching the climax soon.
7:59. And this is where, if you could see me, my arms fling out east and west, it's so crucifying. The violins play the long soaring notes of the intro motif, dripping with grief. The cello saws its heart out, going up and down its musical range, probably stabbing the other players left and right.
8:12. The ray of sunlight. Again. Is there hope? (Yet?)
8:31. We take more battering from the intro motif. But there's a new sense of direction to it, possibly a positive direction, and we're getting more major key music, less minor key. The music rises higher and higher...
9:03 ... And it emerges through all of this to a gentle moment of bliss. No crashing triumphant crescendo, victory over adversity here. Relief. Like a mother's hug. Home. In G major again.
Recapitulation First Theme Again (9:59)
The first theme returns. The shimmering tremolo is gone. The accompaniment is slow and calming. In good narrative style, we have been transformed by our journey. At 10:52, it begins again the workup to the mini-climax we heard in the exposition, but this too, is changed.
Recapitulation Second Theme Again (11:50)
Same as before, except we start in C major (the OTHER side of the G major on the Circle of Fifths). After the repeat of the anxious traveling music (12:40), we repeat the theme again once more, now in the home key of G major, where we belong.
We're getting close to the end. As we end the second theme, the "mumbling" music that launched us into the development returns, granting us a certain kind of symmetry. But at 14:23 it suddenly emerges from this with a clear, bold statement with some finality to it.
At 14:47, the introduction motif returns, and again, it has that same subtle mix of major and minor which leaves you a little uneasy. And this brings us to the end.
Hope you liked it!
NEXT WEEK: We're going to do the Schubert Symphony #9, the "Great C Major," as it's called. I'm only planning on doing the first two movements. If people insist, I might do a second week on it to finish it. Schubert's Ninth is huge. It was composed only two years after Schubert heard Beethoven's Ninth, and there's a similar element of gigantism involved in it.