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Program Notes

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Schubert: Rondo in A major for Violin and Strings, D.438

Franz Schubert (1797–1828) was an entirely Viennese musical product, and in certain ways he grew to embody what the world embraced as the Viennese ideal in music, which tethered together exorbitant talent and technical facility with a measure of ineluctable charm. Of Schubert’s talent there is no doubt. It is curious that his name rarely surfaces when music lovers speak of prodigies, for he doubtless qualifies as a prodigy composer, having begun to write music at an early age and having achieved undying masterpieces of art song by the time he was seventeen. Nor was he lacking in musical charm, and more precisely in that peculiarly Viennese attribute known as Gemütlichkeit, which embraces not just charm but also a sense of coziness, familiar acceptance, and unpretentious well-being. In fact, his principal musical milieu was domestic, from his familial string quartet sessions to the semi-professional orchestra of amateurs that read his symphonies, to the circle of devoted friends—poets, artists, musicians, and enthusiastic hangers-on—who witnessed the premieres of the vast majority of his compositions at the musical parties that became known as Schubertiades, after the composer at their center.
 
The little known and rarely played Rondo in A major for Violin and Strings, D.438, was written in June 1816. Because Schubert had hardly any recourse to professional orchestras (or, for that matter, concert halls), he produced little music in the concerto vein—only one so-called Concertstück (for Violin and Orchestra, also in 1816) and the following year a Polonaise for the same forces. It’s a pity, because those three concerted works display considerable ability in handling the sense of contrast that lies at the heart of concerto- writing, an art Schubert had no practical reason to explore further. If this Rondo was performed when it was new, it must almost surely have been played by a solo violin and a string quartet rather than a string orchestra; that is the instrumentation assumed in the work’s first publication, which appeared in 1897 in the complete edition of Schubert’s works.
A rondo generally suggests lightness. Its recurring main section, with more or less contrasting episodes interspersed between its repetitions, is easy to follow, and its use for the finales of symphonies or chamber pieces often qualified as musical dessert. Here we find the composer looking backwards to the structural models of Viennese Classicism; he uses the simple layout of an Adagio introduction followed by a duple-time Allegro rondo, but the melodic and harmonic touches are nonetheless distinctive.—JAMES M. KELLER