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These articles delve into the Trout Quintet’s enduring appeal and its significance in classical music.

Franz Schubert - G-flat, D899/3

Schubert’s first set of Impromptus (D899) are amongst my most favourite pieces of piano music, ever since my mother, who admired the pianist Alfred Brendel, bought me the score of the Impromptus and Moments Musicaux after hearing Brendel perform them in concert. I was a young piano student at the time, about 11 or 12, and the pieces were really too advanced for me. Nevertheless, I attempted to play them, and was fortunate that my then piano teacher did not discourage me but helped me find my way through this beautiful and varied music.

When I returned to the piano as an adult, after some 20 years away from the instrument, it was to the Impromptus that I turned first. My original Editions Peters score was now too dog-eared to work from productively and so I replaced it with a smart Henle edition.

The G-flat Impromptu, the third of the D899 set, is perhaps the best known and most popular of all Schubert’s Impromptus. Composed in 1827, the year before Schubert’s death, around the same time as he wrote his great, searing song-cycle Winterreise, the third and fourth impromptus were not published until 1857. The G-flat Major Impromptu was originally published in G Major, the editor believing the music to be too difficult to play in G-flat, a “black note key”. In fact, the notes lie much more comfortably under the fingers and hand in G-flat, and this key lends a gorgeous, resonant warmth to the music.

Coming after the tumultuous E-flat Impromptu, the G-flat Impromptu feels like an oasis of calm with its serene, nocturne-like melody, redolent of Schubert’s own Ave Maria and a precursor to Mendelssohn’s most lyrical Songs Without Words, and it confirms Schubert’s penchant for long melodic lines.

The piece opens with a simple, tender melody accompanied by gentle, fluttering harp-like broken chords. The long notes in the bass are more than a series of chords; they provide the foundations and harmonic colour on which the treble rests. The right hand acts as both vocal line and accompaniment. The notes themselves are not that difficult, but this piece is deceptive, and the challenge for the pianist is in balancing the various voices to create the right balance and layering of sound.

It is not all serenity in this piece, however, and with no repeats the music grows increasingly shadowy and dramatic in a middle section marked by frequent modulations and rumbling bass trills. The opening section returns and the music subsides into its relaxed, lyrical flow, before coming to a hushed, gentle close.

Schubert: Paino Quintet in A Major, D.667 "Allegro Vivace"

One of Schubert’s most famous and best-loved compositions is nicknamed after a fish. Well, that’s at least partially true, as the “Trout Quintet” is nicknamed after a song that features a fish. Schubert’s song “Die Forelle” (Trout) was so popular that it was published a number of times during his lifetime. But more on that a bit later. 

Overview

The “Trout Quintet” was Schubert’s first truly significant chamber work. Schubert effortlessly weaves some of his most delightful and magical melodies in an impressive blend of formal clarity and musical narration. 

Composing in his distinctive Viennese musical voice, Schubert fluently balances the somewhat unusual combination of instruments. Instead of the usual piano quintet ensemble for piano and string quartet, the “Trout Quintet” was written on a personal request for piano, violin, viola, cello, and double bass. 

Unified by the Water Motif

In no other large work did Schubert produce so many carefree, and spirited tunes. All five movements unfold in a very relaxed and graceful manner, but 4 of the 5 movements are unified by a rising piano figure, the famous water motif. That figure is taken directly from the song accompaniment and represents a delightful musical imitation of water. 

You can hear the rising piano figure in the short introduction to the first movements, and it also sounds throughout the Allegro proper as well. The slow second movement uses 2 distinct melodies, partially constructed from the rising motif, and you will have no problem identifying the bubbling water. The third movement is an exuberant scherzo and it includes an Austrian folk tune; plenty of colourful melodies here, but no water motif. 

The famed fourth movement is a set of 6 delightful variations on the “Trout” theme, stated in the strings. The final variation will definitely remind you of the Lied! The concluding movement is a light and bouncy movement with a wonderful gypsy flavour, and you will immediately be able to hear and identify the water motive. 

Schubert: Paino Quintet in A Major, D.667 "Andante"

Franz Peter Schubert, born on 31 January 1797 was a quiet, shy, and gentle individual. He was casual and easy-going, and his friends affectionately called him “Schwammerl,” a Viennese dialect word meaning tiny mushroom. 

Personality

Schubert was never worried about becoming famous or making lots of money. The majority of his friends, among them musicians, artists, writers and teachers were simple and ordinary people. He loved to be around his friends but he really wasn’t a people person. Schubert did have a reputation for being a cold and insensitive person, but that appears to have been a defense mechanism against premature intimacy. 

While Schubert certainly wasn’t into self-promotion, he was a visionary with a clear sense of purpose. “I have come into this world,” he writes, “for no purpose but to compose.” And that’s exactly what he did. 

Relationships

Franz Schubert was less than 5 feet in height, plump and short sighted with curly dark hair. He was a quiet and introverted person who was nevertheless prone to dramatic swings of mood. He was romantically involved in a series of submissive relationships with other men, yet frequented the heterosexual bordellos of the Austrian capital. 

Schubert lived the quintessential life of an urban bachelor. He rejected the restraints and dependence of family life and found sustenance and camaraderie in a close, but ever-changing circle of friends. Perpetually short of money, he lived with various roommates, hung out in pubs and drank heavily. 

Lyric Melancholy

Schubert essentially was an unhappy and anti-social man, but he wrote a tremendous amount of the most glorious music inspired by inner beauty. In his music, he reveals himself as one of the most humanitarian of all composers. 

The “Andante” is a quietly lyrical movement that presents the first theme in the piano in bare octaves. An arpeggiated passage transports us to the second theme, a solemn tune sounded by the viola and cello. In his harmonies, Schubert covers a vast tonal landscape imparting a great sense of deeply felt melancholy. 

Schubert: Paino Quintet in A Major, D.667 "Scherzo"​

During the first decades of the 19th Century, the city of Vienna was a real party town. Conductors, performers and composers from all parts of Europe flocked to the city to take advantage of the rapidly expanding employment and business opportunities. 

Competitors

Immigrant composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven and Gioachino Rossini ferociously competed for local audiences in a highly competitive environment. Let’s not forget, however, that Vienna was home to a number of highly talented composers, foremost among them Franz Schubert. 

For one reason or another, we are led to believe that Schubert’s music was not popular during his lifetime. Nothing could be further from the truth as between 1821 and his untimely death in 1828 he published nearly 100 opus numbers with mostly Viennese firms. That’s almost double the rate of Beethoven’s output over the same period.

Because he focused on the publication of Lieder to the almost complete exclusion of the prestigious genres of the symphony and opera, less than a quarter of Schubert’s music appeared in print before his untimely death. Nevertheless, Schubert’s genius became a powerful artistic stimulus for a great many contemporary composers.

Nature 

Nature to Schubert and others of his generation not only meant going for long walks and hikes, which Schubert loved to do, but Nature was natural. Nature, in fact, supplied all the standards for beauty and for morality.

To sit musing by a stream, or view a thundering waterfall, or confront a rolling desert or angry ocean could be morally improving, and could be emblematic of one’s own world of emotions and feelings. Painters, writers and composers were also aware that the industrial revolution was destroying much of the natural world and creating an essentially artificial environment. 

Placed at the center of his “Trout Quintet,” the Scherzo bristles with energy and vitality. The primary theme is comprised of a series of three upward lunges incorporating a triplet gesture. This musical gesture is pure Schubert, and an expression of natural playfulness and unadulterated fun. A demurer Trio is couched withing the two Scherzo sections. 

 

Schubert: Paino Quintet in A Major, D.667 "Andantino"​

How do we get from a short Lied to a full-fledged chamber composition lasting almost 40 minutes? It is a story of transformation inspired by a musical friend and the natural beauty of the Austrian countryside. 

Walking Tour

During the summer of 1819, Schubert and the famed baritone Johann Michael Vogl went on a walking tour of Upper Austria. In the town of Steyr, located halfway between Vienna and Salzburg, they visited the home of Sylvester Paumgartner. 

Paumgartner was an amateur cellist and local music patron who sponsored musical evenings devoted to song and chamber music. He was a great lover of nature, but paradoxically made his money strip-mining the countryside. 

The Commission

Schubert had free use of the music room, and he staged a number of midday concerts in the salon. Paumgartner requested Schubert to compose a work with the same instrumentation as Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s E-flat Piano Quintet, with the unusual addition of the double bass. 

The second requirement demanded that one of the movements should feature Paumgartner’s favourite “Trout” song. Schubert had composed the song to words by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart in 1817, and it quickly became one of his biggest hits.

Poetry

The original poem tells a little story of deceit and defiance set in Nature. A fish is happily swimming in the clear waters of an Alpine stream, when a fisherman comes by to catch it. Since the water is so clear, the fish can easily see the trap, but then the fisherman clouds the water, within seconds and to the dismay of the onlooker, he has the trout on his hook.

The poetry makes clear the observer’s sympathy for and identification with the fish, and Schubert’s music features one of the composer’s effortless melodies, instantly memorable and enchanting. The melody is accompanied by the rippling, leaping and joyous water motif.

Musical Transformation

In the “Trout Quintet,” the song becomes the basis of a theme and variations movements. Schubert freshly reinvents his original setting but does not transform the original melody  into new thematic material. The melody stays intact throughout each of the variations, but Schubert colours it with melodic decoration and each instrument explores the theme in turn. This movement is the crown jewel of the Paumgartner’s special commission. 

Schubert: Paino Quintet in A Major, D.667 "Allegro guest"​

When Franz Schubert died at the age of 31, the poet Franz Grillparzer wrote on his large tombstone, “here music has buried a treasure, but even fairer hopes.” Despite his short life, Schubert left behind a vast treasure trove of music. 

Schubertiade

During his lifetime, Schubert cultivated a small circle of friends. They frequently gathered in the composer’s apartment for private and informal musical gatherings. In addition to the composer’s participation, these meetings often featured poetry readings, dancing, and other sociable pastimes, with attendees numbering from a handful to over one hundred.

In the centre of this so-called “Schubertiade” was the composer seated at the grand piano, and guests included Austrian nobleman, composer, painters, poets, dramatists, lithographers. The attentive company of men and women, including Schubert’s unrequited love the Countess Karoline Esterházy, were comfortably seated on plush Biedermeier furnishings. 

Intellectual and Political Aspects

Schubertiade gatherings were part of the intellectual salon rather than family affairs, and they often had dangerous political undercurrents. In the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, Austrian police was highly suspicious of any gathering of students, youth, intellectuals and artists.

Following a Schubertiade gathering, Schubert and four of his friends were arrested on suspicion of revolutionary activities by the Austrian secret police. Schubert and his friends were severely reprimanded for “inveighing against officials with insulting and opprobrious language.”

Schubertiade Reborn

While many of the original Schubertiade meetings took place in Vienna, the increased popularity of the event, which slowly lost its political associations, saw it quickly spread throughout central Europe. 

In 1976, the internationally acclaimed baritone Hermann Prey reestablished the “Schubertiade” in the small town of Hohenems, picturesquely located in Western Austria. Since then, this summer festival has become one of the most distinguished and important musical events in the calendar, and it welcomes roughly 40,000 visitors a year. You are likely to encounter the “Trout Quintet” at the Schubertiade, but you will certainly not be arrested for attending!

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