Schubert-Quintets from beginning to end

Posted on December 4th, 2009 by

Schubert-The Strange case of the Quintet

Pre-concert talk/lecture-given at York University, and Royal Academy of Music. Autumn 2009


Arnold Schoenberg to Bud Behrens, January 31st 1949, Lost Angeles


“Generalisation produces too often the ridiculous./ Whether music should arouse emotions owhether it does arouse emotion, whether it derives from emtion or not-all theis depends on two factors: the sender and the receiver./ No doubt composers like Beethoven and Schubert and Schumann were emotionally moved when they composed. No doubt, also, that their music arouses emotion, or at least in those people who are the proper receivers of this kind of music. Of course there are also people who are not receivers of emotional music. In them, there is not the ability to arouse emotional reaction.” [written in English]



Schubert’s quintet was presented to my generation as emotion perfected. We played it frantically at late night chamber music parties, dreamt of the perfect rendition of the first movement second subject, lamented over bad performances that we had given, and mapped out our emotional lives, our love affairs, our betrayals, on its canvas. I was lucky; my first experience of the work was from the choir of the Festival Hall, watching the Amadeus Quartet, with William Pleeth, the post-war masters of stadium-scale chamber music, cast their spell. Like many of my age, I got my hads on the lightning struck rendition recorded in Prades by Isaac Stern, Alex Schneider, Milton Katims, Paul Tortelier and Casals, wondered, and then, not surprisingly, despaired. After these, any performances seemed shallow, and there was certainly more than a little sense that what such artists had been through, what they had stood for, in more ways than one, had brought a significance to the work that was not available to later-born artists. This is not to say that there were not later, contemporary revelations; for British artists, the most clarifying of this was probably the classically elegant performance recorded in the early 1980’s by the Chillingirian Quartet with Jennifer Ward Clarke; perhaps the first modern-instrument recording to take note of the then-newish understandings of early 19th century style.


Other chamber works brought new levels of expectation to performances of this work, to the notion of late works. The most obvious of these was Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. There can be little doubt that an association was born, not only with idea of lyrical, large scale chamber works, concerned, it seemed, with the ‘end of things’, but also between certain technical concerns. The most obvious of was to do with the challenge of, and significance of slow-legato bowing. It is more than a coinicidence that these were two pieces that were closely associated with William Pleeth, and that his technical idealism profoundly affected performers’ personal expectations in both works. Perhaps the link was at once brought to its Zenith by George Crumb-the Messiaen and the significance of late Schubert were and are fundamental to Black Angels.


“On the C major Quintet I have a few comments to make. Had it taken form as a quartet it would doubtless be far better known that it is at present. The addition to a quartet party of a second cello part exacting the services of a very competent performer is not always easy to arrange. The quintet was given at the pops as many as twenty three times, but from that time up to the centenary year it has seldom been heard in London; yet from the lyrical and dramatic point of view, nothing so ideally perfect has ever been written for strings as this inexpressibly lovely work. It has not the epic quality of Beethoven, but of the purely human appeal of this lovely music I am able to give a convincing instance. I have known four musicians, all greatly experienced in this class of music, and noten in the least inclined by disposition to sentimentality, who with strange unanimity expressed the feeling, that, were they fated in their last hours to listen to some lovely strain, this would be the music of their election. One of these was Alfredo Piatti, and another, John Saunders, an accomplished quartet leader, who is not longer with us. Upon his tomb in Norwood Cemetery are inscribed a few bars taken from the opening movement of this quintet. [1st Movement Bars 81-86] So long has men can breathe, or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. {W.S., Sonnet XVIII}


Cobbett’s comment raises a fascinating ‘extra’ for the problematised late acceptance of the Schubert Quintet. This is a long story. At the beginning of the 19th century, the most influential European chamber music organisation, that of Pierre Francois le Sales Baillot, was not focused on String Quartets. Yes, Quartet playing was central to their work, but the fundamental line up of Baillot’s ensemble was two violins, viola and two cellos. This was necessary because the very foundation of their society was the performance of Boccherini’s numerous and classicising strings quintets. There is no question that these works were directly instrumental in inspiring Schubert’s Quintet.


The double-cello quintet was a vital medium for chamber music societies such as Baillot’s. Levasseur’s Méthode de Violoncelle regarded Boccherini’s works as having created a new role for the cello in chamber music:

“It is known what an interesting role the Bass (sic) plays in the Musique dialogue of the greatest masters, that is to say in trios and quartet.  But there is one compositional genre which seems to have been made for the cello; it is the quintet which Boccherini has conceded so much to it; there he made this instrument heard both in the role of accompanist and in the role of recitante (leading line).”


In order to ensure performance of his works, he perhaps more than many composers of his day, was prone to chose intrumentations to suit. His other quintet, die Forelle was specifically written to accompany one of Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s two pieces for this instrumentation. However, middle to late 19th century saw the rise of the first chamber music organisations that focussed almost exclusively on String Quartets. With them, came attendant trends in the practise of amateur music-so much so that Cobbett could make a comment, a century later, about ‘Quartet-Parties’. It is notable that the group which premiered the Quintet, led by Hellmesberger, in 1850, whilst based around Quartet playing, was not exclusively that. Hellmesberger’s concerts tended to include various instrumentations, large and small. As the Boccherini Quintets faded from view, which, as it was frequently noted in the middle 19th Century, they did, they was very little cause for making a ‘Quintet Party’ despite Brahms unsuccessful efforts when he began work on his Op 34. In  1864, Willim Sandys note that  the Boccherini Quintets, “where the instrument (the cello, his instrument), takes a leading or prominent part” were seldom heard.





To Clara Schumann, HANOVER, [September 24, 1860] – Perhaps I shall go throught the Schubert arrangement too, under Scholz’ conductorship, so as to make sure of its effect on me, as audience, once more. Spina is a strange fellow ; I wrote to him twelve days ago and have heard nothing yet. Perhaps he regrets having undertaken what he could not refuse you at the time. I played Schubert’s Quintette for two viol. Viola and two ‘cellos yesterday. Much of it is beautiful, overflowing with feeling and quite individual; and, unfortunately the whole does not satisfy one! Irregular and with no feeling for beauty in the contrasts! What a pity it is that such a genius should never have fully developed! And yet one cannot help loving dear, good Schubert so much!


At first sight, Joachim’s reaction to Schubert’s masterpiece might seem ill-considered. However, it must be put into context. In the half-century that followed upon the publication of Beethoven’s late quartets, controversy raged as to whether these were the products of his deafness, or even his madness. This was despite these works having been performed immediately upon their appearance, despite the insistence of players from Paganini to Maursin to get them under their fingers, and despite their wide availability. The long lines of Schubert’s  Quintet rendered it in many ways as radical as any of Beethoven’s late works, and, unlike them, there was do concered effort by the followers of Schuppanszigh to create a performance tradition for it, or even the particular virtuosities it demands. Joachim was no fool, but neither was he prepared to accept a work as a masterpiece a prima vista. We have to ask the question: How would we respond to this work if it was handed to us as a work unfraught with the expectations of history.


The first performance of the quintet was given on the 17th November 1850 in the the Kleiner Musikveriensaal  in Vienna by Josef Hellmesberger’s Quartet, with Josef Stransky playing 2nd cello. Hellmesberger’s father had been a member of the K., Hofkapelle. H’s Quartet later played this work 14 times, whilst, for all his reservations, Joachim’s quartet played it 16 times after 1870.


‘Following an offer made to Probst the publisher, there came into being the C Major Quintet, published later by Spina, as Op 163… if however, the date ‘Sept. 1828’ may be taken as correct, the intellectual content and the thoughts of the artist in this quintet need no longer be a secret. Shortly after Schubert, acting on medical advice had ( in August 1828) gone to his brother Ferdinand to be nearer the country, he received the first warning of death in the form of a serious illness from which he only temporarily recovered in October. Correspondence with publishers brought only fresh disappointments after the preceding small successes.[Willi Kahl]


Schubert too wrote for silence: half his work

Lay like a frozen Rhine till summer came

And warmed the grass above him. Even so

His music lives now with a mighty youth. [George Eliot]


George Eliot summed up the 19th century bewildered wonderment at the slow release of Schubert’s oeuvre. She was, of course unaware of the work of Ferdinand Schubert or Spina. She would, perhaps, have been a little shocked that figures such as Clara Schumann and Josef Joachim were initially, less than enchanted with all that they heard. There was  widespread suspicion that Schubert was turning into a latterday Pergolesi, spawning legion unknown works after his death-many of which would turn out to be bogus. The sheer volume of Schubert’s posthumous works, which, unlike Beethoven, rendered his opii redundant, did nothing to allay these suspicions.


On the 11th of May 1809, Napoleon’s army bombarded Vienna from two days. Schubert, a scholarship student, and the other members of the Imperial Choir boarded in the Stadtkonvikt; during the shelling, the building took a direct hit.  The building was directly across the street from the University of Vienna. This shelling, coming two years after the notorious British bombardment of Copenhagen, traumatised Vienna. Beethoven hid in the cellar under the Schwarzspanierhaus.



Schubert’s entire life connected to St Stephens, though never in any official capacity. Whether liturgical or secular, orchestral or chamber, his harmony and melodies never separated themselves from the experience of being a choirboy, and playing the violin later in church services. The Overture begins with a lamentoso (a harmonic progression that reoccurs in all the early works) which has, I feel been purloined directly from the choral works that he would have sung. And indeed, this would have been the sum total of his experience of complex music, as he would not begin his lessons with Kapellmeister Salieri, until a year after this was written. He particularly venerated the religious music of Joseph Haydn’s intermittently brilliant younger brother, Johann Michael Haydn-laying flowers on his tomb in Grosswardein in 1825. Haydn’s liturgical music was an important part of the Viennese choral repertoire, and I like the idea that the long dead Haydn, who had helped Mozart on his return to Salzburg in 1772, in some ways became a composition teacher to the boy Schubert.


At Schubert’s funeral, the music was directed by the choirmaster of St Stephen’s Cathedral, adjacent to the Stadtkonvikt, where he had been a choirboy from 1808-1813.  Ironically, it was not his own music that was played, but that of Anselm von Hüttenbrenner, who had been a pupil of Salieri’s when Schubert was studying with him. Hüttenbrenner and Franz sang in a vocal quartet together in the late 18-teens, and, if Schindler is to be believed, visited Beethoven twice together on his death bead, year before Schubert died. One of his fellow choristers, Johann Baptist Wisgrill (B. 1795), became a doctor, and attended Schubert on his deathbed, in November 1828.


Conditions, and food, at the Stadtkonvikt, were far from ideal. In 1812, he wrote to his elder brothers:


 “I have long been thinking about my situation, and have concluded that, although it is satisfactory on the whole, it is not beyond some improvement here and there. You know from experience that we all like to eat a roll or a few apples sometimes, the more so if after a middling lunch we have 81/2 hours to wait for a mediocre evening meal.”


Much has been made of the tragedy of Schubert’s early live; that he barely a third of his siblings survived to adulthood, and his mother died in 1812; perhaps the austerity of the regime at the Konvikt was a greater factor.


Every evening at the Seminary, he played in the Seminary orchestra, and became the Kapelldiener­-responsible for music stands, instruments and storing the music. He also played chamber music with his family; his two brothers Ignaz and Ferdinand, played the viola, and his father, the cello. It seems that friends and neighbours joined this group, and this became a small orchestra, playing string arrangements of works by Haydn and Mozart, and arrangements of overtures by Kapellmeister Salieri. For some years, this orchestra met in his father’s school room, and the initiative gradually shifted to Franz, and the second oldest brother, Ferdinand, who became a composer of some accomplishment. It would be not stretching a point that Ferdinand’s hand can be seen in some of the writing in Franz’ three works for violin and small orchestra, which were all written for him to play with this group.


The Overture D8 , dated June 29 1811, was Schubert’s earliest chamber work, and being written, it seems, for the extended family group, sits right on the divide between chamber music and orchestral writing. The fact that it is notated for string quintet probably indicates that this was designed to be fitted into readings of transcriptions orchestral works; indeed there were far more transcribed orchestral works for double viola quintet available than there were original pieces. Franz He dedicated the later string quartet version of it to his brother Ferdinand. This however, may actually be a version specifically for string orchestra, and, far from being a reduction, might have been intended for the larger orchestra available to the Schuberts to play. It is very clear, whatever the intention, that Schubert was deeply impressed by the new music that was available him in Vienna; the school orchestra of the Stadtkonvikt, which Schubert lead, had read through pieces by Cherubini, Mehul and Beethoven. The overture also makes direct reference to the completed (1-5) Beethoven Symphonies; indeed these work returned to haunt Schubert constantly throughout his working life; the amazing Trio of the later String Quintet refers directly to the Funeral march of Eroica.



I feel that I have to point out that Schubert’s first and last chamber works for strings are both dramatic quintets for Strings, in C major/minor. This in itself would be worthy of notice, but further than that, they both share a certain quality of mementi mori. T S Eliot noted that:


Webster was much possessed by death,

And saw the skull beneath the skin;

And breastless creatures under ground

Leaned backward with a lipless grin.


This teenage fascination with death is not unusual; after all, plenty of young people react to life with just such mordred fantasies. Here’s a favourite of mine:


“ Today….we are heading south on Highway 101 through Californian redwoods…its 930am, we’ve been on the road since 800 and the children, whom I will call Curly, Larry, Moe, and Marilyn Monroe are plugged into Walkmans, except Marilyn, who is writing a poem “about death”, she told me a moment ago.”


Anyone who has been a teenager can identify with that. I don’t think that Schubert was any different, except that he had more cause to be ‘possessed by death’.


Indeed, the two adjacent D Numbers to the Overture, written simultaneously with it, and sharing much its material, are Eine Leichenfantasie (tr) and Der Fatermoerder (tr).


The Webster-ish obsession persisted, and was perhaps exacerbated by Schubert’s exterior. He noted in his notebook in 1816;


“A light mind accompanies a light heart; yet too light a mind usually conceals too heavy a heart…to be noble and unhappy is to feel the full depths of misfortune and of unhappiness; likes to be noble and happy is to feel both happiness and misfortune to the full.”


Perhaps Schubert’s saving grace was that he belonged to the latter groups, and as his friend Eduard Bauernfeld noted in 1826:


“Schubert has the right blend of the ideal and the real; for him, the world is beautiful.”



Schubert was hoped that Schubert’s love of the outdoors might save him, and in the summer of 1828 he moved to a new house:


“A long house with three rows of nine windows in front, a brown sloping roof and an entry in the middle to a quadrangle behind; A quiet, clean, inoffensive place,…He made the move with eh concurrence of his Doctor Von Rinna, in the hope that, as it was near the country-it was just over the river in the direction of Belvedere-Schubert would be able to reach fresh air and exercise more easily than he could from the heart of the city. George Grove

Indeed, his love of the outdoors persisted till the end. In October 1828, he walked to Eisenstadt (to Haydn’s Grave) with Ferdinand and friends, and two weeks before his death, he walked for three hours. However his behaviour on walking tours revealed much about his nature, ‘too light a mind usually conceals too heavy a heart…’ Another school friend, Franz Eckel, noted:


 “on walks…he mostly kept apart, walking pensively along with lowered eyes and with his hands behind his back, playing with his fingers ( as though on the keys), completely lost in his own thoughts.”



 In October 1828, Franz Schubert wrote to the published Heinrich Albert Probst:


I am asking myself, when at last the Trio will be published? Maybe you don’t have the Opus number yet? It is Opus No. 100. I await the publication of this with longing. I have already composed three more sonatas for Piano alone, which I with to dedicate to Hummel. Also, I have set yet more Lieder by Heine of Hamburg, which are felt to be out of the ordinary here, and finally a Quintet for 2 Violins, 1 viola and 2 Cellos is ready. I have played the sonatas in various places, with much success; the Quintet however will be tried out for the first time in these days. When these works are of some interest to you, then I will let you know them.



 Arnold Schoenberg-Letters, Ed. Erwin Stein,  Faber and Faber, London, 1974,  Baillot, Levasseur, Catel, and Baudiot, Méthode de Violoncelle, Peters, Leipzig, ?, The History of the Violin, William Sandys, William Reeves, London 1864, Schubert’s Vienna, Ed. Raymond Erickson, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1997, Franz Schubert, a biography, Elizabeth Norman McKay, Oup, Oxford, 1996, Schubert’s Chamber music: before and after Beethoven, Martin Chusid, in The Cambridge Companion to Schubert , Ed. Christopher Gibbs, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997, Whispers of Immortality. TS Eliot, Selected Poems, Faber, London, 1954, Family Honeymoon, from We are Still Married,  Garrison Keillor, Viking 1989, March 1826, in Franz Schubert, Music and Belief, Leo Black, Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2003,  Schubert, Arthur Hutchings, JM Dent and Sons. London, 1973,  Memoirs, Franz Eckel, Schubert-an Heinrich Albert Probst, Wien den 2.Oct. 1828.