Schubert: String Quintet in C major

“The product of my genius and my misery, and that which I have written in my greatest distress, is that which the world seems to like best.”

Franz Schubert

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

I know of no other composer whose music speaks more directly to my heart than Franz Schubert.  Listen carefully to the third movement of this quintet.  In the first section (the scherzo), he takes us to a realm of unbounded joy, while in the slow interlude that follows, even while giving voice to unfathomable sorrow, Schubert somehow reassures us.  “Be comforted,” he says, “everything will be all right.”

The following notes are from the Sierra Chamber Society, and can be found in their entirety at

Widely regarded as a masterpiece, both among Schubert’s many compositions, as well as in the entire chamber music repertory, the C major “Two Cello Quintet” was composed in what were to be the last remaining months of his short life.  The work was completed only a few weeks before his death on the afternoon of Nov. 19, 1828.  However it was not until twenty-two years later, November 17, 1850, that the work received its premiere performance.  Another three years were to elapse before the work was published.

It is often remarked that Schubert’s choice of instruments for the quintet is unusual since he did not follow the instrumentation used by Mozart and Beethoven in their string quintets.  Whereas the aforementioned masters called for two violas in their quintets, Schubert chose to double the cellos.  However, this ensemble is by no means unusual.  Luigi Boccherini composed no less than 113 string quintets using this instrumentation.  It is not known whether any of these works were known to Schubert, although Boccherini’s music was published in Vienna by Artaria, publishers of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.  But it hardly matters…

The length and breadth of the Cello Quintet are of symphonic proportions.  The first movement alone is almost as long as many an entire early classical symphony, and longer than the first movement of any of Beethoven’s nine…  Particularly noteworthy in the dramatic and expansive first movement are the duet passages for the two cellos.  In his Guide to Chamber Music, Melvin Berger informs us that the violinist Joseph Saunders had the second theme of this movement carved on his tombstone.  Many lovers of this quintet feel that the second movement Adagio is the high point of the work.  It is said that it was pianist Artur Rubinstein’s wish to have this movement played at his funeral…  The third movement Scherzo opens in triple meter, with melodic figures reminiscent of horn calls.  This exuberant music continues until the Trio, which brings another mood swing to a brooding elegiac interlude, as if the composer is suddenly reminded of his own ominous fate amid the grand noise of life.  There is then a return to the lively music that opened the movement.  The final movement seems to depart from the grand gestures of the previous movements.  Perhaps it is the tempo, which seems a bit relaxed for all that has preceded it.  It does seem to have kinship with the dance-like movements of Schubert’s symphonic masterwork, the 9th Symphony in C major The Great, also composed in the last year of his life.

This video was recorded during a live performance at the Zagreb International Chamber Music Festival on October 15, 2008.  The performers are Susanna Yoko Henkel and Stefan Milenkovich on violin, Guy Ben-Ziony on viola, and Giovanni Sollima and Monika Leskovar on cello.  The four movements are marked as follows: 1) Allegro ma non troppo 2) Adagio 3) Scherzo: Presto/Trio: Andante sostenuto and 4) Allegretto.

Published in: on August 31, 2011 at 3:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,