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Piano Quintet, D667 "The Trout"

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Franz Schubert
Program note originally written for the following performance:
Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio Tue., Feb. 14, 2012, 7:30 PM
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Early in July 1819, Franz Schubert left the heat and dust of Vienna for a walking tour of Upper Austria with his friend, the baritone Johann Michael Vogl. The destination of the journey was Steyr, a small town in the foothills of the Austrian Alps south of Linz and some eighty miles west of Vienna where Vogl was born and to which he returned every summer. Schubert enjoyed the venture greatly, writing home to his brother, Ferdinand, that the countryside was "inconceivably beautiful." In Steyr, Vogl introduced the composer to the village's chief patron of the arts, Sylvester Paumgartner, a wealthy amateur cellist and an ardent admirer of Schubert's music. Paumgartner's home was the site of frequent local musical events - private musical parties were held in the first floor music room as well as in a large salon upstairs, decorated with musical emblems and portraits of composers, that also housed his considerable collection of instruments and scores. Albert Stadler, in his reminiscences of Schubert, reported that Paumgartner asked the composer for a new piece that could be performed at his soirées, and stipulated that the instrumentation be the same as that of Hummel's Grande Quintour of 1802 (piano, violin, viola, cello and bass). The work, he insisted, must also include a movement based on one of his favorite songs, Schubert's own Die Forelle ("The Trout") of 1817. Schubert, undoubtedly flattered, welcomed the opportunity, and started sketching the work immediately. He completed the piece soon after returning to Vienna in mid-September, and sent the score to Paumgartner as soon as it was finished. There are no further records of the "Trout" Quintet until 1829, a year after the composer's death, when Ferdinand sold his brother's manuscript to the publisher Josef Czerny, who promptly issued the score with this statement: "We deem it our duty to draw the musical public's attention to this work by the unforgettable composer."

In his study of Schubert, Alfred Einstein wrote that the "Trout" Quintet is music "we cannot help but love." It is a work brimming with good-natured, Biedermeier Gemütlichkeit, perfectly suited to the intimate nature of Paumgartner's musical gatherings, closer in spirit to serenade than to sonata, and rarely hinting at the darker, Romantic emotions that Schubert explored in his later instrumental works. The first of the Quintet's five movements is a richly lyrical and expansive sonata form whose recapitulation begins in the subdominant key, one of Schubert's favorite instrumental techniques for extending the harmonic range and color of his music. The Andante is a two-part form, a sort of extended song comprising two large stanzas. Following the delightful Scherzo comes the set of variations on Die Forelle, which lent the Quintet its sobriquet. Of Schubert's use of his own song here, and in the "Wanderer" Fantasy and the D minor Quartet ("Death and the Maiden"), Einstein wrote, "It was not for self-glorification, but merely the simple or naive knowledge of how good those melodies were and of the harmonic wealth they contained. He felt the need to spin out a concentrated musical idea which was [originally] fettered by the text to make it a plaything for his imagination, to demonstrate how far he could elaborate it." The formal model for the movement was probably the variations in Haydn's "Emperor" Quartet (Op. 76, No. 3); as in that work, the theme is presented once by each of the ensemble's instruments, but its content is distinctly and characteristically Schubertian. A sonatina of decidedly Gypsy-like cast closes this deeply satisfying work.