Schubert's "Trout" Quintet for Piano and Strings


performed at Staunton Music Festival

August 15, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, VA


Guillaume Pirard, violin

Kyle Miller, viola

James Wilson, cello

Heather Miller Lardin, double bass

Andrew Willis, fortepiano


video by Stewart Searle





About the Music

The facts surrounding Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) “Trout” Quintet, D. 667, are fairly well documented. Published posthumously in 1829, the quintet was actually written ten years earlier during a summer holiday in Upper Austria. Schubert received an invitation to join his friend Sylvester Paumgartner at the latter’s home in Steyr. Paumgartner, a successful businessman and amateur cellist, asked Schubert to write a set of variations on his favorite song, Die Forelle or “The Trout.” Apparently Schubert never intended for the “Trout” Quintet to reach a widespread audience. It was written at Paumgartner’s request and simply utilized the five musicians Schubert had on hand that summer in 1819.


One of the most striking things about the piece—and it’s not always seen as a good thing—is that Schubert repeats massive blocks of material. Such repetition may show signs of hasty completion. And while it seems out of step with our notions of creative genius, it certainly makes sense if Schubert was rushing to get a piece ready for performance among friends.


The variations movement is certainly the most famous portion of the Quintet, but it is amply supported by four other movements of diverse character. Even in the opening bars of the first movement one senses the freshness and optimism of a young man. Schubert was just 22 when he wrote it. One also notes the influence of Mozart in the close string writing, clear phrase structure and conversational tone among the instruments. The texture of low strings, bolstered by the novel inclusion of a double bass, and contrasted with high piano writing is a signature effect exploited throughout the quintet. The opening page also includes a striking harmonic turn from A major to F major. That move opens up new realms for tonal exploration, and its sound was one that Schubert particularly enjoyed.


By opening the second movement in F major, Schubert echoes that same A-F key relationship. But he hardly presents F major before going off on a tangent. Quick modulations are used to good effect. Before too long, Schubert has presented four distinct themes in various keys during the first half of the movement! What happens next is unexpected and troubling to many critics, for Schubert simply hikes up the pitch level and proceeds to paste in the entire first half of the movement, note for note. It’s hard not to feel a little unsettled at the end.


The next movement, a Scherzo, provides much-needed energy after the languorous second movement. Its main theme is marked by a three-note pickup, which sounds like a hasty sprint to the downbeat. Schubert captures something both forceful and playful here, and the rhythm and jaunty articulations create an infectious spirit. He only restrains the momentum during the central Trio section, which is more lyrical and characterized by musette-like drone.


In the Quintet Schubert composes a theme with six variations. He scores the main theme for string quartet. The “Trout” melody stands out clearly in the violin, supported by graceful lines in the cello and viola. In successive variations the tune moves through the texture from piano (var. 1) to viola and cello (var. 2) to string bass (var. 3). At Variation 4 Schubert dramatically redirects into D minor and deviates from the “Trout” tune. Although the latter half of the variation retains hints of the melody, the first half is all Sturm und Drang—far away from the serene world of the preceding material. Variation 5 is the only part not centered on D major/minor, but Schubert compromises by sticking fairly closely to the theme. Variation 6 (coda) features a divided ensemble: violin-piano duo versus string quartet.


The finale opens with bare octaves on the dominant note (E), clearing the air for an introductory theme. This summons motive recurs periodically to mark boundaries in the form. Schubert’s second theme clearly recalls the “Trout” melody, unifying the movements and infusing a bit of lilting D major into the finale. Where Schubert fails to impress, perhaps, is what he does with the remainder of the form, favoring a kind of massive song structure with A and B sections each appearing twice. We know Schubert often felt dissatisfied with form, particularly sonata form. So striking a departure from convention in one so young portends future difficulty in creating musical designs that fit his needs. If we see the Quintet as lyrical and poetic but formally problematic, we are still immensely fortunate that Schubert bequeathed such an “experiment” to posterity.


© Jason Stell, 2017




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