First Friday in Philadelphia, 11/7/2008: On Schubert’s Quintet D. 956, Op. Posth. 163

1. It’s been two weeks, but I felt I could wait for the sake of saying an appropriate thank you to the Poor Richard’s String Quartet – Michael Finckel, Thomas Kraines, Andrea Schultz, Beverly Shin and David Yang – who played in Christ Church that night. I’m no good at writing music criticism, so I bought a recording of the piece performed, Schubert’s Quintet in C Major, D 956 Op. Posthumous 163, and have been listening to it nearly every day in order to figure out something to say.

Any comment on the performance would be incomplete without mentioning the stop Paul and I made at Artist’s House before it. The art was of incredible technical skill, but much of it was from people around my age, and it was lacking in a key respect: it was as if the artists, for the most part, had nothing to say. Perhaps Katherine Fraser’s work was emblematic of it generally: she clearly is a superior painter. But if you look at her piece “The Modern Woman,” it’s impossible not to come up with the critique Paul managed in a matter of seconds – (paraphrasing) “her hair is shorn, the dress hides her sexuality, she’s holding a skull that reminds us of O’Keefe. Oh look, despite her attempts to be sexless, there’s a calendar, reminding us of the cycle that she must endure biologically no matter how many externals she changes.”

“Cliched” is too kind a word. The engagement of the fine arts with mass media – making poster-like/Myspace background type paintings – seemed to be my generation’s way of showing off their talents, nothing more.

2. The Quintet was a mature piece played by professionals slightly older than many of the artists at the gallery. The most powerful thing about the performance was its maturity – not a single note was wasted, and it was clear that everyone playing was determined to make their instrument sing the line so as to create the whole: “Keeps all his goings graces.”

This Quintet is the stuff of legend, I found out while looking up music criticism on it. It is an hour’s worth of music, and is one of the last pieces Schubert wrote. It moves back and forth a variety of ways – from loud to soft and back and forth describes all the movements. But to be more specific: the opening Allegro starts with a tender, vigorous theme. The Adagio that follows gets quiet and contemplative for a while before switching to a minor key. The Scherzo is by contrast a grand recovery, but not quite a triumphal march: it’s too elegant, and matches the subtlety of the Trio within. The Allegretto the piece ends with is almost a dance, except by this point the listener has been saturated such that every note holds extra weight. It is a dance, but one of competing progressions within the music: the tension isn’t dark, but one does sit in suspense at how the music will resolve. Quite powerfully and perhaps blissfully, it turns out.

In outline, then, what you have is some kind of mini-epic. There are piano pieces like this – while it dwells on one theme almost exclusively, Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie is a place to look. The primary feeling one gets is that a range of related phrases are being explored thoroughly: no stone is left unturned in the search for the best music possible.

It sounds weird to say that maturity is an intellectual endeavor, whether implicit or explicit, and I think that’s why I’m sticking to the “they don’t have anything to say” story regarding the criticism before. It’s not clear to me that if you have anything to say that you’re an intellectual. What is clear is that if you do have something to say, you’ve provided room for those of us who care to think, and perhaps we can converse about what matters.

2 Comments

  1. I would have to agree with the basic criticism you quoted in your article.
    The painting is very nice, and I might consider buying her work. However, I would have to be intentionally ignorant of the underlying meaning.
    Because I am not interested in forcing my opinions on others, I would simply judge the work on its merits. Sometimes this is difficult to do.

  2. It is interesting how the artist has so much to say in her little ‘blerb’ next to the image, while the image itself says very little. When an artist has to explain what a piece “means” they are not a true artist at heart, at least in my eyes.

    As for your words on the music — beautiful.

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