Don Luis, the younger brother of Spain’s King Charles III, was an avid musician who participated in his own string quartet. He hired the Italian cello virtuoso Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) as a court composer, and he also added the star performer to his ensemble, which is how Boccherini came to write over a hundred quintets for two violins, viola, and two cellos.
Boccherini spent the rest of his life based in Madrid, a city he portrayed lovingly in this String Quintet in C Major (Op. 30, No. 6), known as Night Music of the Streets of Madrid. The scene painting is quite specific, starting with the tolling of church bells and the rat-a-tat rhythms of a snare drum, signifying the procession of the military’s night watch. With the cellists imitating the sound of a guitar, a hearty minuet represents the dancing and singing of blind beggars. There is a prayerful invocation of the Rosary, and then another dancing movement with guitar-like strums places the melody in the tenor range of the first cello—Boccherini’s own part. The final section marks the retreat of the night watch, again using rapid tremolo bowing to represent the military drums.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828), dying of syphilis at the age of 31, continued to create some of his most beautiful and adventurous music to the very end. He completed the String Quintet in C Major (D. 956) only a month or two before he died, but like so much of the work by this visionary composer, it was deemed valueless at the time. The design was atypical, adding an extra cello to the traditional string quartet (like Boccherini) instead of the second viola favored by Mozart, Beethoven and most other composers since. The sheer scope was astounding, too, with the complete work lasting about 50 minutes. Schubert’s publisher rejected the piece at the time, and it did not reach the public until the 1850s.
The quintet begins with music that gives the deceptive impression of being a slow introduction, although it is actually an integral part of the exposition (the portion of a sonata-form movement that lays out the essential arguments). The harmonies wander and modulate freely throughout this “fast but not rushed” opening movement, clouding the home key of C-major with dark streaks of C-minor and other foreign realms.
The next three movements all seize upon the uncomfortably close relationship of a half-step or semitone (i.e. adjacent keys on a piano). In the slow movement, a sublime E-major meditation gives way to a turbulent central section up a half-step in F-minor. When the E-major theme returns, residue from the F-minor music agitates the once-pristine textures.
The Scherzo returns to the work’s home key of C-major, exploiting the resonance of open strings, but then it deviates to a strangely subdued middle section in D-flat major, again a half-step higher. The finale revisits the ongoing drama of major versus minor, and one last unsettling flourish at the end—a unison D-flat falling a half-step to C—leaves that essential semitone conflict closed but hardly complete, much like the career of this quintet’s unfortunate composer.
© 2019 Aaron Grad.
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