About this work
Sometimes referred to as the Rosamunde Quartet because of the second movement theme from the composer's failed stage work of the same name, this A minor work was the only one of his string quartets to be published in his lifetime. Ill and miserable with syphilis, Schubert in 1824 made the acquaintance of the renowned violinist and quartet leader Ignaz Schuppanzigh, who had just returned from a seven year visit of Russia. During their times together, Schubert resolved to return to the medium of the string quartet, which he had abjured for several years. The result was a lyrical and introspective work, almost solemn, dedicated to Schuppanzigh and premiered by him on March 14 of that year.
The work opens darkly, with low quavering in the viola and a mournful theme by the violin. Although the movement modulates to major keys and becomes more lively at points, it retreats to the pensive and downcast darkness of the opening. At over 13 minutes, the first movement is as long as any two of the other movements, and very wide in scope dramatically and emotionally. Of note, it does not contain any of Schubert's driving rhythmic vitality, but seems halting and even insistently morose, finally returning to the opening quavering and mournful theme at its end. The Rosamunde theme begins the second movement, but here it has been made smaller and more mournful. Simply spun out, the theme persists until an animated outburst in the middle section infuses life into it temporarily. It then returns to close out the movement. Even the third movement minuet is not immune to Schubert's despondency, as here he recalls his own setting of Schiller's The Gods of Greece. The text of the work is also despondent: "Beauteous world, where art thou? Come again, O lovely age of Nature's blossoming." It is not necessary to be familiar with the earlier work to realize that the movement is inordinately somber for a minuet and trio marked Allegro. Only in the Allegro Moderato finale does Schubert lift the veil of depression, and although the movement does not burst forth with the driving vitality of many of his later works, it is not gloomy. It does feature the composer's characteristic play of major against minor and arrives at a satisfying conclusion. It accurately and somewhat grimly depicts Schubert's frame of mind as he suffered through the years of his final illness.