Q. When is a string quartet not a string quartet?

A. When it’s a song cycle(??)

Schönberg’s second quartet breaks boundaries. It starts respectably enough in its home key of f-sharp, and then (within the freedoms of late romantic form and chromatic harmony) proceeds in a fairly orderly quartetish manner until the end of the second movement, the scherzo; it’s then that the real revolution starts.

The third movement is a series of interlinked variations – nothing unusual in that – but what is very much out of the ordinary is the fact that the quartet suddenly becomes a quintet and that the newly introduced fifth member of the ensemble isn’t a string or wind player but a soprano singing the poem, Litanei (Litany), by the German symbolist poet Stefan George.

The next (and final) movement continues with the George settings. Entrückung (Rapture) takes us on a journey like no other before it. As the poet describes feeling the ‘air of another planet’ so the music strives to free itself of the gravitational weight of tonal harmony, following the poem into the aural equivalent of its ‘sea of crystalline radiance’.

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