String Quintet in C major, D. 956, op. posth. 163
December 16, 2018: Emerson Quartet
Between August and October 1828, just before his tragically early death in November, Schubert completed an amazing number of pieces, widely varying in character and containing some of his most beautiful music—the three late piano sonatas, the song collection Schwanengesang, the incredible C major String Quintet, and Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock). The great quantity and quality may have been an act of defiance by one who knew he had little time left, but they could just as easily have been the product of one confident in his creative powers who had no thoughts of dying, since he had always recovered from previous illnesses.
No sketches nor autograph manuscript of the miraculous String Quintet survive to give clues about its gestation. It is entirely possible that the work’s total creation took place within two weeks that September. We know only that the Quintet had been recently completed from a letter to publisher Probst on October 2 offering the work for publication along with the three piano sonatas and some Heine songs. In that letter Schubert mentioned that the Quintet would be “tried over in the near future,” something that did not actually happen until 1850 and in a cut version at that. Probst turned down the Quintet, probably because such a large-scale chamber work would not sell well (though he expressed interest in the songs). This masterpiece was not published until 1853.
Schubert’s String Quintet has become one of the most beloved chamber music works of all time. Its endless flow of gorgeous melodies and advanced modulating harmonies, its engaging mixture of tenderness and robustness, and its luxurious sonority enhanced by the presence of a second cello have spoken in an especially personal way to audiences and performers alike. Much has been made of Schubert’s pioneering medium—the presence of two cellos rather than two violas as in Mozart’s great Quintets. “Pioneering” is justified here since Boccherini’s earlier two-cello quintets contained a soloistic first cello part to show off his own playing, whereas Schubert’s five players are all equal participants in a true piece of chamber music. Many reasons for his choice have been offered, but the simplest is probably that he loved the sound of the cello in its tenor range but did not want to give up its bass support.
This wondrous work, like his G major Quartet two years earlier, begins simply with a sustained chord that blossoms into melodic and rhythmic fragments. The way in which he immediately transforms these elements portends a movement of great breadth and imagination, but nothing can fully prepare the listener for the melting beauty of the second theme. If for no other reason, the sonority of the two cellos singing high above the viola’s bass line more than justifies Schubert’s chosen quintet configuration. This lilting theme makes many appearances in various instrumental configurations, giving the movement its overall sense of serenity, though Schubert does introduce enough dramatic conflict, particularly in the development section, to provide balance.
One of the crowning jewels of the Quintet is its exquisite Adagio, one of Schubert’s rare essays in such a slow tempo. The drawn-out unfolding of his theme seems to suspend time, a quality that speaks volumes about Schubert’s confidence and prowess. His memorable texture has the three middle instruments playing the sustained theme while the first violin provides fragmented outbursts and the second cello pizzicato support. Without warning the middle section explodes passionately in a distantly related key, after which the sublime opening section returns with inspired variants. Toward the end, the turbulent music tries to intrude but is quickly repressed by the prevailing calm. The extraordinarily moving quality of this music led both celebrated pianist Artur Rubinstein and esteemed writer Thomas Mann to say they would choose this movement to hear on their deathbeds.
The scherzo’s stomping peasant dance, replete with hunting calls, contains remarkable harmonic shifts and bold dissonances that lend a sophisticated sheen to the merriment. No greater contrast can be imagined than the somber, introspective trio that is ultimately brushed aside by the return of the merry Scherzo.
The finale imparts rustic Hungarian flavor with its vigorous short-long rhythms in the accompaniment and shifts between minor and major. The lilting second theme gives a more elegant, courtly impression. Toward the end he creates an unforgettable sonority by offsetting the cellos, again in duet, against delicate arching chords in the upper three voices. His exuberant coda speeds up twice to provide a dazzling conclusion.
© Jane Vial Jaffe