A mysterious Schubert Quartet

I am reading a magnificent book entitled Autonauts of the Cosmoroute by Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlop which was recommended to me by Joe Moran when I interviewed him for the radio show I made about the A4074 road along which I regularly commute. The book is both a travel journal and a philosophical treatise documenting a journey the couple made along the Paris-Marseilles freeway, staying at 2 rest-stops per day. Exploring the Autoroute in this way and treating the road itself as a site rather than merely a means of getting from A to B, Dunlop and Cortázar transform the giant motorway into an exotic and surprising landscape.

Unsurprisingly, I have been especially struck by the descriptive passages in the book which concern the sounds of the freeway, like this lovely description of its sound, likening the noise of tires on asphalt to the white noise of the sea*;

Eight days on the freeway now.
No: the freeway is precisely what’s lacking, for us it’s nothing more than a background noise in the distance that habit reduces day by day, that we’ve effortlessly likened to an agreeable echo of the Caribbean Sea in Martinique or Guadaloupe. It’s true, we mustn’t let ourselves get carried away so mechanically by the scale of aesthetic values (the sound of the sea is a thousand times more beautiful than that of a freeway, etc.): with eyes closed, the equivalence can reach disturbing levels. Truck-waves, engine-whitecaps… In any case, there are the same intervals of silence, the approximation and crescendo of the next break, that diastole and systole of a waving, breathing, sometimes unbearable resounding volume such as we’ve known on Martinique’s beaches and in the rest areas.

I was also struck by this grandiose description of a Schubert Quartet from Cortázar;

I set up my typewriter and realize I’ve forgotten something inide Fafner**. On my way back I feel trapped by the view of the other side, a landscape that the morning mists had hidden from us when we arrived. Trapped, and nevertheless I spin around and realize that it’s the same everywhere. I take off from the rest area, more winged than a Chagall character; I am that distant mountain, I drink the blue of those trees that I can barely make out as distinctive entities, I slip down the quarry way over there, and always in the rest area and always still, the spin continues to the point of vertigo, that vertigo one gets in rare moments of life with 360-degree vision that annihilates and creates at the same time.

A brief musical phrase begins to make its way through the whirlwind, similar to the nightingale who tests out his scale as night is falling before laughing into his song wholeheartedly. Two, three notes whose gravity seem to arise from the grandeur of the landscape. A beat, another, and it’s that Schubert quartet which resembles no other, and forgetting what I’d come to look for I climb inside Fafner where I know we have a recording of this very quartet and on which I throw myself frequently with that kind of inevitable violence in moments I cannot define or even relate to each other, and so in less time than it takes me to say so I’m sitting on the back seat, joined to the tape player by the headphone cord like an extraterrestrial creature. The first notes begin, mournful and grave, as the world must once have begun, a music-pain like the landscape that surrounds me, of which I’m part, violin and cello; the grave notes interrupt like a wound and the unexpected sharp heals, and then comes the slow, so slow and marvellous fusion of everything, the harmony searching itself out, hoarding the surrounding mountains and even the tourists who’ve started arriving… I see them, I do. But not from my body, not with these eyes which have barely smiled at them. No, I see them from where I listen and which can not be spoken, from the heart of the stringed instruments, from within the brain of a long-dead musician and yet still there, floating and submerging way up above the mountain, with no wall or window or city or house around him, I touch the heart, birth and expansion of the music like the view: in each musician’s finger guiding the arcs like so many other lovers, each foot maintaining the delicate balance of the instrument, each chin resting on its pillow without leaving a trace: with each note, those things that don’t exist and that nevertheless, in moments like this, are all of creation and the finality of the world, I am there, as big as all these mountains, I am the deep quarries, I am the time the cassette lasts…

Rossignol, panoramic parking lot, do your birds sing now, for those who know how to hear, that beautiful Schubert theme that transformed a rest area into the beginning and end of the world?

No Schubert expert myself, I am now burning to know what the quartet in question might be. I feel we are dealing with something in a minor key, as indicated by “grave” and “mournful” first notes; and the piece clearly opens at a steady pace. “Like no other” means we are also dealing with something very different to the rest of Schubert’s output, and the quartet in question is clearly comprised of string instruments and not wind or brass instruments.

I would deeply appreciate any insights that you could contribute as to what this elusive classical composition might be!

Book details:

Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlop, “Autonauts of the Cosmoroute – A timeless Voyage from Paris to Marseilles” 1983

ISBN: 978-1-84659-048-1

*All of this several decades before Fontana’s “innovative” artwork exploring the same idea!

**Fafner is the couple’s affectionately named “dragon” i.e. the campervan in which they undertook their journey along the freeway.

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