The work of Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) constantly reminds us of the astounding power of melody, and in this, his final instrumental work, the composer penned some of his most ravishing.
The Quintet was probably written in September 1828. The composer listed it among the compositions he offered the publisher Heinrich Albert Probst in a letter written October 2, in which he explained that the Quintet “is to be rehearsed shortly.” Probst was not interested. Schubert heard a private rehearsal of the work in October, a month before he died. Today it is hard to believe that one of the greatest of all chamber works remained unheard in public until 1850, twenty-two years after the composer’s death — and that it remained unpublished for three more years.
In choosing the instrumentation for his Quintet, Schubert did not follow the path of Mozart and Beethoven, both of whom added a second viola to the normal string quartet. Schubert decided, rather, to add a second cello, which changes the sound of the instrumental group in a striking way, adding a darker, perhaps more grave sound to the ensemble. Exactly why Schubert chose to add the second cello is not known. Maybe it had to do with the particular string players who congregated at the house of his brother Ferdinand. Perhaps he simply wanted the richer, more profound sound for this music, which, as one writer has said, glows with “almost painful beauty.”
With a work so sublime, so intrinsically musical, and of such profound spiritual depths, anything one says about Schubert’s String Quintet seems dangerously trivial, though Yehudi Menuhin’s observation that Schubert’s music “is purity itself” is certainly apt. The work is in four movements, and in each of them the composer pairs the instrumental forces in such a way as to make them sound constantly new, a considerable achievement, given the Quintet’s length.
The first movement (allegro ma non troppo) opens with an introduction of astounding beauty. The introduction of the movement’s second theme by the two cellos and the way Schubert juxtaposes the other three instruments around this theme in the rest of the movement, is an example of a great master at the height of his powers.
Few pieces in Western music approach the serenity Schubert captured in the miraculous Adagio, which begins with the three inner instruments singing a broad, lyric melody, while the two outer voices (the first violin and second cello) provide the framework. The turbulent second theme is a remarkable contrast to the otherworldly opening theme. One might see this as an alternation between introspection and a view of the world outside the self, a duality that continues in the third movement. This Scherzo is bouncy, rollicking, high-spirited, while the movement’s Trio provides a period of repose. One of the score’s marvels is the way Schubert moves the listener from the quiet Trio to a repeat of the Scherzo — in only eight transition measures.
The final movement, Allegretto, is essentially a rondo, but the composer lavished an almost sonata-form development on his opening dance-like theme. During this final movement, Schubert again uses the cellos in duet, contrasting their solemn, broad musical line with sometimes scampering counterpoint from the higher instruments, as though reminding us of the work’s earlier movements.
In John Reed’s book Schubert: The Final Years, he notes, “There is something especially fragile and vulnerable about the first venturing forth of the romantic imagination, of which, in music, Schubert is the supreme example. His music speaks, with a kind of consoling sadness, of a lost world of innocence and joy. The strength of his personal vision sustained him through a working lifetime of fifteen phenomenally productive years, none of them without its tally of masterpieces; and even at the end, plagued as he was by ill-health and disappointment, inspired his most eloquent and poetic music.”
This article appeared originally in the program book of the San Francisco Symphony and is used here by permission.
The watercolor of Schubert is by Wilhelm August Rieder, 1825.