Piano Quintet, “The Trout”
For all its non-musical similarities to Beethoven's "Ghost" Trio (both composers even wrote the works in the countryside on summer holidays!), the "Trout" Quintet is a more "upbeat" piece by a newly mature composer. The Piano Quintet in A major, D. 667, clearly reflects the 22-year-old Schubert in his surroundings: summertime vacation in the countryside for a man who had spent his entire life in the city.
Uncommon in its instrumentation, the "Trout" is scored for piano, violin, viola, cello, and double bass, the same as Johann Hummel's Piano Quintet - a favorite piece of Sylvester Paumgartner, the wealthy music patron and amateur cellist who asked Schubert to write the quintet. Paumgartner had an additional request: that Schubert somehow incorporate his song "Die Forelle" within the composition. It was the summer of 1819, and the celebrated baritone Johann Michael Vogl had taken Schubert with him on a walking tour in upper Austria, visiting Vogl's birthplace in Steyr along the way. The summer was filled with outings, music parties, and impromptu concerts, and Schubert was buoyant. His sunny, out-of-doors leisure is audible throughout the work. The "Trout" Quintet, like much of Schubert's music, was never published until after his death. However, the original song, "Die Forelle," was so popular that it was published several times within Schubert's lifetime - once in 1820, again in 1825, and again in 1827, when it was assigned Opus 32.
Schubert decided not only to integrate "Die Forelle", but to use the song for a theme and variations in the fourth of five movements. And while the flashing currents of piano accompaniment in the original song momentarily veer into minor mode (as the poem's fisherman muddies the clear water and hooks the fish), Schubert opted for the serene beginning of "Die Forelle" as his fourth movement's main theme, letting the more complex emotions unfold in the later variations. In no other large work did Schubert produce so many carefree, spirited tunes. Melody reigns throughout the "Trout" - yet there is no mishmash of melodies. Robert Schumann wrote of Schubert the composer: "No music except Schubert's is so psychologically remarkable for the development and association of ideas and the impression of logical transition that it conveys."
The first movement begins with a dramatic upward flourish; then several melodies, similar to the "Trout" theme, follow throughout the movement. The second movement, marked Andante, begins with the piano playing the lyrical first theme in bare octaves. A passage of arpeggios leads to the second theme, a solemn tune of viola and cello, against a busy background in the other parts. The third theme is similar to the first, but with a quirky and more complex rhythm.
The rapid and lively Scherzo that follows the Andante contains a more demure Trio couched within the two Scherzo sections. Of the work, this movement has the most spikes of contrast, with sudden surges in dynamics. Following the Scherzo's energetic drive, the Theme and Variations begins and continues - for the first three variations - with embellishments on the original song. The fourth and fifth variations are, on the other hand, significant makeovers of the original tune. The sixth variation is a return to the theme. The song melody has been passed to each of the instruments in turn, and it is now, in the final variation, that it emerges with all of the charm (and the accompaniment) of the original song. As the first three movements led to the "Trout" theme and variations, so the fifth movement - an Allegro giusto played in the Hungarian style by the violin and viola - is a final response to it. The music, announced with a chime-like tone, quickly drops into a charming motif, which then progresses through minor keys and contrasts in articulation and dynamics for the remainder of the movement.
- Jessie Rothwell is the Publications Coordinator for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She also writes music, plays the oboe, and sings Bulgarian folk music.