Schubert, Franz: D956, String Quintet in C Major

The sense of vastness and wholeness around FRANZ SCHUBERT‘s Cello Quintet D. 956 cannot be simply explained, but the source of its unifying resemblances shows up very clearly in its first sounds. The opening chords present not only a germinal major/minor ambiguity, but also a general sense of two-ness, like inhalation and exhalation, which repeats itself in steadily diminishing values throughout the opening phrase (fig. a). This sense of pairing (which is neither harmony nor motive, but something in-between) will reappear on innumerable levels as the piece progresses. 22 bars later, for example, the opening material returns at full force in the cellos as small-valued pairs cascade above in the violins (fig. b). That the opening material reappears a few bars in is not particularly unusual except that the reappearing material is not necessarily the most evident musical motion the second time through, given the brilliance of the violins’ effects. This second statement of the theme gives not only the shape of the opening, but also a sense of the tectonic motion (large motion beneath small) which sustains all the music to come.

Two more examples serve to demonstrate the pure strength of the opening bars from the first movement. First: in the fabulously distant D# Major of the trio of the third movement, the music descends hesitantly from the violins to a rich memory of the opening phrase (fig. c). Second: an echo of the opening comes with the reappearance, as though at a vast distance, of the dual-scale theme from bar 33 of the first movement at a crucial juncture in the last movement (some half an hour or so later – fig. d).

These are structural elements, and operating on a scale that may or may not have aural meaning. But the themes, such as the second theme of the first movement:

are so beautiful that when they reappear somewhat changed, a few moments later:

or dried out, a few more moments later:

or reconfigured and reinforced, even whole movements later (with the syncopation forcibly removed from the first bar here, in the last movement), they still seem to have resonance:

How Schubert’s remarkable mix of tune and permutation turns these traces of theme into echoes of one another with such force is not clear. It is hard to consider them from a technical standpoint. They seem simply to have been remembered whole as the piece was being written – divined rather than devised. One still may remember them, either above or below consciousness; either way, they remain, and frame the time. Ezra Pound wrote about the cause of such impressions, imprisoned like Messiaen and every bit as mad as Schumann:

     nothing matters but the quality
of the affection –
in the end – that has carved the trace in the mind
dove sta memoria
— Ezra Pound, Canto LXXVI, Pisan Cantos

As to the mechanism of memory, and the weird echoes of what ends up remembered: Charles Wright, years later, and more circularly:

From the bad eye and early morning
you raise me
Unshuttered from the body of ashes
you raise me
Out of the dust and moth light
memory
Into the undertow of my own life
you make me remember.
— Charles Wright, Lost Souls, The Other Side of the River

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