Travelling Without Moving: The Romantic Wanderer in Schubert's G Major String Quartet

After an unseasonably warm December in the city, the New Year ushered in a sudden, unsettling chill. On January 2, I attended a performance of Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise by Chris Herbert and Will Kelley at St. Paul’s Chapel. The poetry, by Wilhelm Müller, tells a story of a young protagonist unlucky in love who wanders across the winter landscape. The performance eloquently captured the icy stillness that pervades the work, and it reminded me of an essay I wrote a few years ago about the character of the Romantic Wanderer in Schubert’s G Major String Quartet.

In a review of an all-Schubert concert on March 27, 1828, the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung reported that the new string quartet is “full of spirit and originality.” This new quartet was Schubert’s G major string quartet (D. 887), which the composer completed by June 30, 1826.

In this piece, the Romantic Wanderer asserts itself as a persistent protagonist.  On the surface, it appears as the key of G minor, equal in strength to its parallel twin G major.  The first movement’s opening G major triad explodes into a catastrophic minor one, and from this moment forward, G minor pervades the entire work.  In the Andante second movement (my favorite one of the quartet), a melancholy theme in E minor establishes the mood of the movement.  However, after an unsatisfactory transition, the protagonist returns, for the eruption of G minor at this moment recalls the opening of the quartet.

Throughout the piece, the protagonist is also vulnerable, haunted by its distorted recollections of past events.  Through the recurrence of thematic fragments in new guises, such transformed themes or motifs represent a maturity gained by the protagonist’s slippery yet successful navigation between extreme emotional contrasts and unchartered harmonic territories. The ways in which gestures reappear represent the protagonist’s personal growth, for past experiences are reinterpreted and reevaluated at later points in one’s life, points at which the individual is more mature than before.  

In the G major string quartet, Schubert guides the listener on this journey – it is this musical depiction of a dramatic narrative that the composer so eloquently tells in the work. Robert Schumann would later write, “Apart from Schubert’s music, none exists that is so psychologically unusual in the course and connection of its ideas…While others used a diary to set down their momentary feelings, Schubert used a piece of manuscript paper.”