FOLLOWING a flurry of activity as a composer of string quartets at the tender age of sixteen, Schubert wrote only three further quartets during his period of apprenticeship – one in each of the three succeeding years. Looking back on his early efforts in the summer of 1824, just a few months after he had completed his Death and the Maiden Quartet D.810, he seems to have had scant regard for them. Responding to a letter from his elder brother Ferdinand, who described his pleasure at rediscovering those youthful pieces, Schubert told him, ‘it would be better for you to keep to quartets other than mine, for there is nothing to them, except perhaps that you like them, as you like everything of mine’.
Schubert had made a brief return to string quartet writing at the end of 1820, in a manner that showed his ambition to produce a work more intense and dramatic than anything he had attempted in the genre before. But just as his first serious efforts to master the piano sonata some three years earlier had resulted in several aborted projects, so, too, the string quartet of 1820 was destined to remain unfinished. Over the string quartet, as over the piano sonata, loomed the giant figure of Beethoven (‘Who can do anything after Beethoven?’,2 Schubert once complained to his friend Josef von Spaun); and perhaps it was unwise of Schubert to have chosen to make his return to the quartet arena with a piece in C minor – the key Beethoven had made so much his own. In terms of its actual material the one portion of the work Schubert did manage to complete – the so-called Quarttetsatz, or ‘Quartet Movement’, D.703 – is of the highest quality, though it is possible that he remained dissatisfied with its unorthodox form. At any rate, he abandoned the score after having composed no more than forty bars of its slow movement. The opening Allegro was published for the first time in 1870, more than forty years after Schubert’s death, while the fragmentary slow movement did not appear in print until 1897, when it was issued in the value to that of the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony.