Franz Schubert completed the String Quintet in C Major in the late summer of 1828, less than two months before his death at the age of 31. Sublime and valedictory, it is music which inhabits mysterious and celestial spaces. It achieves the “heavenly lengths” (Robert Schumann’s words) of Schubert’s “Great” Symphony No. 9 in C Major, which was finished two years earlier. We get a sense of the monumental expanse of Bruckner symphonies to come.
While requiring the kind of deep, attentive listening which keeps us rooted in the present moment, Schubert’s Quintet plays tricks with our perceptions of time and space. The critic Joshua Kosman perceives “a certain Alice-in-Wonderland fluidity of time and distance, a looking-glass geography in which the far becomes near and vice versa,” while Jan Swafford writes, “By the end of this work as with few others, one feels one has traveled an immense distance – musically, emotionally, and spiritually.”
While quintets of Mozart and Beethoven augment the string quartet with a second viola, Schubert’s Quintet is scored for two violins, viola, and two cellos. This results in darker, more autumnal sonorities which, at times, suggest a symphonic sense of drama. Arnold Steinhardt, the longtime first violinist of the Guarneri String Quartet, relishes the interaction of the two cellos, “sometimes in sweet and poignant duet, sometimes parting company—one laying down a resonant bass line, the other roaming its heavenly upper registers.”
On October 2, 1828, Schubert wrote to the Leipzig music publisher, Heinrich Albert Probst,
Among other things, I have composed three sonatas for piano solo, which I should like to dedicate to Hummel. I have also set several poems by Heine of Hamburg, which went down extraordinarily well here, and finally have completed a Quintet for 2 violins, 1 viola and 2 violoncellos. I have played the sonatas in several places, too much applause, but the Quintet will only be tried out in the coming days. If any of these compositions are perhaps suitable for you, let me know.
As with the Ninth Symphony, the C Major String Quintet was music written for posterity, living, initially, only in Schubert’s mind. Probst’s reply requested only that the composer send songs and popular piano music. With Schubert’s death, the Quintet was forgotten, only to be rediscovered twenty-two years later in 1850 when it was performed by the Hellmesberger Quartet. The first publication came three years later. The Quintet influenced Schumann and Brahms, and has come to be regarded as one of the monumental pillars of the chamber music repertoire.
The first movement (Allegro ma non troppo) is an expansive drama which makes up one third of the Quintet’s duration. From the first bars, the purity of C major is clouded by harmonic ambiguity, with the intrusion of shadowy minor tonalities. The ensemble is divided into two “choirs.” The opening statement, sounding with the instrumentation of a traditional string quartet, is answered by a haunting lower choir in which the second cello enters. In this moment, we get a visceral sense of having transcended the confines of the string quartet.
The movement’s motivic building blocks involve two remarkably simple gestures, a turn figure which first occurs in the fourth measure and a fanfare-like dotted rhythm. As the movement unfolds, it traverses a dizzying array of key areas, each evoking a distinct atmosphere. For example, notice the way a magical new landscape emerges with the sudden shift down a third to E-flat major for the beginning of the second theme (2:01). The exposition concludes with a brief third theme which emerges as a spirited march and, in the final bars, merges with the second theme. The development section begins with another jolting modulation, this time an upwards shift to A major. Amid these mercurial shifts, the music conjures up a flood of powerful and contradictory emotions, which include joy, exultation, lament, tenderness, and tragedy.
The second movement (Adagio) seems to suspend time. An organ-like chorale melody in E major unfolds with a sense of mystical tranquility. It floats above a pizzicato line in the cello, which propels the music forward as a gentle motor. The mood is broken with a sudden turn to F minor in the movement’s tempestuous middle section. Just as suddenly, we slide back to E major and a return of the chorale theme. This time, it emerges as a ghostly variation, with searching embellishments in the first violin and rumbling lines in the second cello. The final bars drift away into timeless serenity.
The Scherzo (Presto) erupts with the spirited, rustic sounds of hunting horns and bagpipe drones. Leaving behind these sunny, exuberant adventures, the trio section descends into a haunting and contemplative world which is far removed. Again, time seems to be suspended. With a sense of repetition, the music becomes hazy and hypnotic.
The final movement (Allegretto – Più allegro) is the String Quintet’s most brief. It is as if, having traversed celestial territory, we are ready to come home for a party. A rousing Hungarian folk dance blends with the sounds of a Viennese cafe. Before this irrepressible rondo-sonata form hybrid is finished, shadows from the previous movements return. The last measures arrive with bold octaves. An invading D-flat provides one more dramatic surprise before the final C.
I. Allegro ma non troppo:
III. Scherzo. Presto – Trio. Andante sostenuto:
IV. Allegretto – Più allegro: