Trout quintet (Franz Schubert)

…Schubert’s compositions frequently contain the emotional swings and extended lyricism of the Romantic era; but almost everything is grounded firmly in the Classical, balanced forms of his musical mentors…

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Quintet for Piano and Strings in A, D.667 The Trout

Allegro vivace
Andante
Scherzo and Trio
Theme and Variations
Allegro giusto

In an age when evening entertainment was largely limited to one’s own resources, it must have been very handy to have nearby a composer such as Franz Schubert (known to his mates as Schwammerl or ‘Mushroom’). Schubert grew up writing and arranging works for his family and friends to perform. He himself played the viola, so it is often rewarding to listen especially for that instrument in his chamber works – he frequently allocated himself a ‘good’ part!

In 1819, a wealthy amateur cellist by the name of Sylvester Paumgartner invited a few congenial souls to his house in Steyr. Being a fan of Schubert songs, Paumgartner commissioned some music from the composer (who was enjoying a summer holiday nearby). He made a special request for the work to include the tune from Die Forelle (The Trout), which he particularly liked. Paumgartner was also musically literate enough to suggest that Schubert might take Hummel’s Piano Quintet as a model.

Of course, the other useful thing about having a ‘tame’ composer is that they can write for the resources at hand. It seems probable that a number of Paumgartner’s favourite local musicians conformed to the rather unusual instrumentation of piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass used by Hummel and Schubert in their quintets.

In the event, Schubert merely sketched the work during his stay. Possibly he was distracted by the number of young women in the house. As he wrote to his brother Ferdinand, ‘there are eight girls, nearly all pretty. So you see, one is kept busy.’

There is also no doubt that he was more than equally delighted with the ‘unimaginably lovely’ countryside of Upper Austria. One German critic went so far as to call the inspiring landscape ‘a secret collaborator’ in the composition of the Trout Quintet.

Schubert finished the work on his return to Vienna in September, and sent it off to Paumgartner (who played cello for the premiere). After that, no one seems to have paid any attention to it for a decade. Given the popularity of the piece thereafter, it seems incredible that it remained essentially unknown until its publication by Josef Czerny in 1829.

Schubert’s compositions frequently contain the emotional swings and extended lyricism of the Romantic era; but almost everything is grounded firmly in the Classical, balanced forms of his musical mentors. The first movement of this quintet conforms neatly to the principles of sonata form: two contrasting ideas presented in turn, then adapted and mingled, before returning in a recapitulation.

The second movement, Andante, is calmer but contains plenty of enjoyable melodies. It is followed by a Scherzo and Trio. Bernard Levin once said, ‘Schubert’s music…is both happy and sad at the same time; or rather, it is neither happy nor sad, because it moves at a level where such considerations do not apply.’ This neatly sums up the tragicomic nature of the original song Die Forelle, which tells of a nice little trout who, in the end, cannot outwit the deceitful (and unsporting!) angler. Schubert chose not to set the last two verses of C.F.D. Schubart’s poem, which more explicitly warned young girls about cunning young men.

The fourth movement of the quintet features the famous tune with variations, but it is treated simply as a theme. There has been little attempt at word-painting, other than a quotation of the rippling brook motif which accompanies the song. The work then moves briskly to a brilliant finish.

Katherine Kemp
Symphony Australia © 1997 

Reprinted with permission of Symphony Services Australia

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