Franz Schubert — Quintet in C Major for Strings, D. 956

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.