Franz Schubert's short, hectic life was full of "what ifs" -- unfinished sketches, abandoned works and fragmentary thoughts. Many of these leftovers were quite extraordinary despite their obvious limitations.
Among them is the Quartettsatz in C minor, a piece whose first movement Schubert completed in 1820 but whose Andante he abandoned for unknown reasons. Sensing its value, the Brentano String Quartet commissioned the New York composer Bruce Adolph to write a response in his own style, and he responded with Fra(nz)g-mentation, a dense yet witty homage to the original. During a recent visit to New York the Brentano played the two works back to back in the WQXR Cafe.
“This Quartettsatz is a piece we’ve played a lot and really love,” explained Mark Steinberg, the Brentano’s first violinist. “We wondered a lot why he didn’t finish the quartet because I think it’s as great as the other late quartets. Then I found out he had started a second movement and I thought it would be so nice to play that in a concert and give this piece the kind of scope that another Schubert quartet might have.”
Steinberg and his fellow quartet-mates didn’t want to ask a living composer to simply mimic Schubert, so they asked Adolph to write music in his own style that would "make the piece more complete in a sense."
The commission became the backbone of "Fragments," a project celebrating the Brentano’s 20th anniversary season, which runs through 2012. Along with Schubert, the group took abandoned pieces by Bach, Shostakovich, Haydn and Mozart, and commissioned several composers to write individual responses to them. Along with Adolphe, Charles Wuorinen, John Harbison, Stephen Hartke and Vijay Iyer contribute to the project, joining an older work by Sofia Gubaidulina.
“We really wanted to create a dialogue between the past and the present and that’s a major theme of the program,” said Steinberg.
Several venues contributed to the commissioning project, including Carnegie Hall, where the Brentano will perform the pieces over two concerts, the first taking place on Thursday night. “Fragments” is just the latest in a series of grand conceptual projects that the Brentano have undertaken over the quartet’s 20-year history, including “Bach Perspectives,” a 2003 venture in which they commissioned 10 contemporary composers to write responses to Bach's magisterial Art of Fugue.
Steinberg believes that by pairing new and old pieces, the quartet can help provide context for seemingly foreign contemporary sounds.
“The variety of styles that’s around right now makes it difficult to get inside the language of one composer if you don’t know them well,” he said. “So having something that’s linked to the past, that provides a way in. The best way to approach music is through other music.”
Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Text: Brian Wise