String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, "Rosamunde"

Composed by Schubert

The nickname of Franz Schubert’s String Quartet D. 804 comes from the second movement, which borrows a tune that Schubert had composed the previous year as incidental music for a play, Rosamunde. The play told a maudlin, fairytale story: the shepherdess Rosamunde discovers that she is secretly the princess of Cyprus. She must overcome the crafty Fulgentius, an evil imposter to the throne. In the end, he is outsmarted and takes the draft of poison that he had prepared for her; happily, Rosamunde ascends to her rightful place as ruler of the realm.

Also happily, Schubert’s string quartet never slips into such overwrought melodrama as the play did. Instead, its pervasive mood is one of subtle, melancholic languishing. The first movement opens with a classic Schubertean texture: a wistful melody, soaring over more rhythmically driven middle and bass parts. From here, the movement unfurls into a dramatic and expansive sonata form. The Andante second movement presents the “Rosamunde” theme with unhurried simplicity, only briefly rising to the level of forceful drama. The minuet is likewise gentle and frames a picturesque country dance as the trio. The work’s finale, while more vigorous and built on a jaunty, grace note-inflected melody, maintains the overall mood of quiet drama.

Schubert largely wrote music for himself and his circle of friends; accordingly, relatively few of his works were in public circulation until after his untimely death at age 31. His “Rosamunde” Quartet is one exception—in fact, it was his only work of chamber music to be published in his lifetime. The piece was dedicated to Ignaz Schuppanzigh, a violinist whose string quartet was also Beethoven’s preferred ensemble, and the Schuppanzigh group gave the work’s premiere in July 1824.