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Great art is inspired by great suffering. That suffering was felt in different ways throughout every movement of the Reynolda Quartet's performance in Watson Hall at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. The concert featured just two works, but they were two massive works: Dvořák's String Quartet in D minor and Schubert's String Quintet in C. The Reynolda Quartet, comprised of four UNCSA string faculty members (Ida Bieler, Janet Orenstein, Ulrich Eichenauer, and Brooks Whitehouse), also featured Bonnie Thron, principal cellist of the North Carolina Symphony.
These two pieces fit well into the theme of the program, "Farewells and Swan Songs," as each was composed during particularly tragic times in the composers' lives when they were surrounded by death. Dvořák had just experienced the deaths of both his son and his daughter, and Schubert was facing his own mortality as his health deteriorated near the end of his short 31-year life. That is not to say that both composers approached death the same way, though, and the Reynolda Quartet and Thron demonstrated this masterfully.
The Dvořák quartet was tinged with nostalgia for the composer's life before the death of his children, constantly alternating between major and minor tonalities, showing his struggle between cherishing their memories and accepting his loss. The Reynolda Quartet addressed each phrase delicately, carefully placing and voicing each note in the way that would accurately portray the emotions Dvořák could have been feeling at that time. In the first movement, there are times that the entire feeling of the piece changes from measure to measure. When a major theme was played, the Reynolda Quartet played it with the warmth of a parent's love, and each time its minor counterpart answered, they exhibited the hurricane of emotions that comes with a loss of that magnitude.
Schubert, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. In general, Schubert treated major and minor tonalities differently than many other composers, sometimes giving major music an unusually solemn tone and minor music an unusually hopeful feeling. This piece is no exception. Schubert was well aware of his impending death while composing this quintet, and this acceptance of his fate can be heard throughout. C major is a strange key for a composition by a man so consumed with the thought of death, but it shows that he embraces the afterlife and is simply waiting for his time to go. But, he still has moments where he faces the natural fear of "timeless eternity," as Whitehouse described it before the concert. The Reynolda Quartet and Thron approached that idea appropriately, giving those moments of realization and Schubert's harmonic surprises the panicked and frantic feeling that anyone would have in that situation.
Schubert quoted the Goethe poem, "My peace is gone," in a letter to a friend in 1824, writing, "'My peace is gone, my heart is sore, I shall find it nevermore.' I might as well sing every day now, for upon retiring to bed each night I hope that I may not wake again, and each morning only recalls yesterday's grief." Throughout the quintet, I kept hearing what sounded like the tolling of heavenly bells, especially in the way the Reynolda Quartet and Thron treated the third movement. Their interpretation made me imagine Schubert riding gallantly into the afterlife, not shying away from it.
Both composers were faced with impossible challenges when these pieces were composed, making the interpretation of their compositions that much more difficult. Should we march onward toward the heavenly bells, or try to avoid "timeless eternity" for as long as we can? Is there a "correct" way to interpret or approach death? I think not. But these are the questions great art should ask, and the questions that great artists try to answer every day. They may not be able to provide us with a definitive answer, nor should we ask them to. They can, however, be the storytellers through which we learn of the struggle that goes into making great art, and the Reynolda Quartet and Bonnie Thron did just that.