The C major of this life

by Barbara Maria Rathbone

Some time ago I wrote on the eschatology of art – the coda of an artist’s life that often produces works that reach far out into the future with a mighty sweep of providential foresight, like the incandescent light on the last minutes of a butterfly’s flight. The last works of Schubert bear this significance particularly deeply, and no more so than in Schubert’s achingly plangent Quintet, written only months before the composer’s death in 1828. This work, now regarded as an epitome of the majesty of the chamber music canon, was disregarded by Schubert’s publishers, who preferred to see him as a simple penner of songs and piano music.

I heard it in an exquisite performance at the Proms last night by the Belcea Quartet, augmented by the wonderful Valentin Erben, cellist of the great Alban Berg Quartet. The vast classical vaults of the Royal Albert Hall hung an eerie shroud over a rapt audience on a cool, damp weekday night while the ensemble of players on a stage that only days before had hosted an orchestra and choruses of Cecil B de Mille proportions for Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony, looked refined and delicate, humbled by space – the juxtapostion of the archly overstuffed to the filigree sound world of pure chamber music. Even with the crimson flash of Corina Belcea-Fisher’s gown, they seemed spectral and removed as if they were locked away in a snowglobe waiting to be tilted. Until the sublime but somewhat questioning final notes, the Neapolitan chord, it were as if we were waiting for the world to end, so that another might be born.

Well, it is earth with me; silence resumes her reign:

I will be patient and proud, and soberly acquiesce.

Give me the keys. I feel for the common chord again,

Sliding by semitones, till I sink to the minor,—yes,

And I blunt it into a ninth, and I stand on alien ground,

Surveying a while the heights I rolled from into the deep;

Which, hark, I have dared and done, for my resting-place is found,

The C major of this life: so, now I will try to sleep.

From ‘Abt Vogler’ ~ Robert Browning

Schubert Quintet in C – Adagio. The Emerson Quartet with Mstislav Rostropovich