Schoenberg's String Quartet in D Major was composed in summer and autumn of 1897. At the time Schoenberg was working with Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942), Schoenberg's only regular teacher. The two had met in 1895 when Schoenberg joined Polyhymnia, an amateur orchestra directed by Zemlinsky. Schoenberg studied counterpoint with Zemlinsky for several months and the two showed each other their works. Zemlinsky advised Schoenberg during the composition of the String Quartet in D Major, and when it was completed both composers felt that Schoenberg had reached a more advanced stage in his work. Zemlinsky arranged for a performance through the Wiener Tonkünstlerverein (Vienna Composer's Society), which took place in March 1898 and proved to be Schoenberg's first public success.
This piece indeed marks a turning point in the composer's creative output. Cast in four movements, the work oozes the influence of Brahms in the clarity of its structure and instrumentation, while Schoenberg's personality comes through in the free flow of ideas. However, the quartet does lack the urgency typical of Schoenberg's later works.
Opening without introduction, the sonata form first movement boasts a sprightly theme in an antecedent-consequent format. The transition comes straight from Beethoven, leading to a second group, featuring voice exchange in its ponderous theme. Schoenberg builds his closing material with references to the first theme and opens the development with a forceful statement of the theme, suggesting a repeat of the exposition. The development section is filled with larger fragments of the exposition themes than is typical of later Schoenberg, although the presentation is similar. A genuine recapitulation follows with Brahms-influenced re-orchestration and compression, while a coda, beginning with a unison statement of the first theme, provides a firm close.
The second movement is a ternary structure with a meandering theme in the viola surrounded by violin flourishes. Eventually the violins take the theme, although in an altered form. Faster and more aggressive, the central section provides stark contrast to the opening material, which returns with varied instrumentation.
A pensive set of variations fills the third spot in the quartet. The cello begins with a theme constructed of falling sighs that moves first to the viola then the violin for the first variation. The second variation also begins with the cello but the theme is varied in a decorative fashion. After an increase in dynamics and tempo in the fourth variation, the music abruptly stops, setting off the fifth variation and its rhythmically altered version of the tune. Another pause precedes the quieter, lyrical sixth variation.
A fanfare introduction opens the rondo form finale. The rondo theme is tossed back and forth between the violin and viola before rushing headlong into the first episode. Schoenberg chose to round out the movement by creating an ABACABA(C)A-Coda structure, but with a Brahmsian sense of harmony.