The Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg published a total of four string quartets. His String Quartet no. 2 opus 10, which he wrote during a turbulent time in his personal life, breaks in many ways with tradition. Introducing a soprano voice into a string quartet was unheard of. The tonality of first three movements is also extended, and the final movement is his first venture into atonality, although its ground-breaking harmonies end on an F sharp major chord.
It was Stefan George’s collection of poems Der siebente Ring (The Seventh Ring) that inspired Schönberg to branch out into new harmonic combinations. There is also an obvious connection between the music and the composer’s emotional turmoil at the time. The work is dedicated to his wife Mathilde, who at the time was having an affair with the expressionist painter Richard Gerstl. In an attempt to put an end to the affair, Schönberg took his young family into the country for the summer, but when he confronted his wife, she left him and their two children. Particularly difficult for Schönberg was the fact that he himself had invited Gerstl, his friend and neighbour, into the bosom of his family. He completed the quartet that summer. Anton Webern, Schönberg’s devoted pupil, persuaded Mathilde to return to her family. This resulted in Gerstl setting fire to his studio, stabbing himself in the chest and hanging himself. Only seven weeks later, on 21 December 1908, the work was premiered by the Rosé Quartet and the soprano Marie Gutheil-Schoder in Vienna.
The third movement, based on the poem Litanei (Litany), is a cry for help from a lost soul, both in words and music. The repeated references to the melody at the beginning of the work suggest an attempt to regain an impression of stability but an inability to sustain it. The final movement, Entrückung (Rapture) opens with the famous verse ‘I feel air from another planet’, and Schönberg takes us further into his new musical universe. The first performance was greeted with heckling and was long referred to as the ‘Schönberg affair’. The composition was difficult for the bourgoisie of Vienna to swallow, but anti-Semitic attitudes may also have played a part. The work convinced the painter Wassily Kandinsky, who heard it performed in Munich, that he and Schönberg were kindred spirits, and he initiated a correspondence and friendship with the composer.
On arrival in Vienna in 1781 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a self-confident 25-year-old. One year earlier Joseph Haydn had published six string quartets, opus 33, and in doing so established a new genre which made greater demands on a composer’s intellect and skill than ever before. Mozart responded with a mixture of admiration and competitive instinct by starting to write his own. Unlike many other occasions, his inspiration did not come from a promise of financial return. He spent much longer than usual completing his two great string quartets from this period – he struggled with the genre, as many corrections in the score reveal. When Haydn heard the result he told Mozart’s father Leopold that Wolfgang had become a great composer with a solid grasp of the Austrian style of composition. Mozart responded to this praise with a letter thanking Haydn, proclaiming him his musical father and dedicating the quartets to him.
Text: Annabel Guaita
English version: Roger Martin