Is there some mysterious synchronicity involved in these three facts? Mozart had lived 31 years when he composed his String Trio; it was 31 years later that Schubert composed his “Trout” Quintet; and Schubert himself lived only to the age of 31? No comment.
Whatever might be said about Mozart’s creating the string trio genre, we know Schubert did not himself devise the admittedly rare piano quintet configuration we find in his beloved “Trout.” We know because he was asked specifically to write a work that would emulate the instrumentation of Hummel’s Quintet in E-flat, Op. 87. Nevertheless, the added richness that results from the added double bass and the frequent solo lines Schubert gives to the single violin (and to the viola and the cello) contribute to a distinctive sonic signature that stands apart from later piano quintets by Schumann, Brahms, Dvor?ák, Franck, Elgar, and Shostakovich. [NOTE CZECH SYMBOL.]
Aside from its sonic cast of characters, there are plenty of other things which set this work apart, including its five-movement layout, its quotation of a song theme, and its remarkably optimistic and jovial nature, especially from a composer whose power to capture human sadness is among the many reasons his music is so dear to so many. Schubert did, in fact, have some happy years, and they are undeniably reflected in most of the pages of this work.
Those happy years included several summer visits to Steyr, the hometown of Schubert’s friend Johann Michael Vogl, where Schubert was introduced to Sylvester Paumgartner, the town’s musical patron. It was Paumgartner who presumably requested that Schubert write a chamber work that would include some variations on his recently composed song, Die Forelle (The Trout). (The preface to the Bärenreiter edition of the Quintet includes excerpts from an account set down nearly 40 years later by another Schubert friend, Albert Stadler, who explains that he prepared a set of parts for a performance at Paumgartner’s house, but Schubert himself kept the manuscript. The score was not published until ten years later, in 1829, after Schubert’s death. )
The luxurious architecture of the work allows ample opportunity for Schubert to showcase his skills. In the opening movement, contrasts of engagingly rustic melodies with pensive passages maximize the full-frequency ensemble at the composer’s disposal. The slow second movement has three principal themes, the second of which – shared by the viola and the cello – exhibits the darker side of Schubert’s emotional range. An invigorating scherzo scurries past in scarcely four minutes. Next comes the variations movement, in which a wordless version of Schubert’s engaging mini-drama of a fish’s futile struggle for survival is deftly recast into an enchanting series of solos for the different instruments. The finale rounds off the Quintet with an energized exposition whose emphatic ending typically fools audiences into premature applause.
Dennis Bade is Associate Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.