INTERMEZZO TWO, Online Premiere Friday 4/2 at 7:30pm ET
Program Notes by Dr. Phillip Thomas, Lee University
FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797–1828)
String Trio in B-flat Major, D. 581 (1817)
In the last decade of the 18th century, Europe was reeling from the fallout of the French Revolution and the resounding victories of the Napoleonic army. Much of Europe was at war with France, including Austria under the Hapsburg monarchy. At issue were the territories Austria controlled in the Netherlands and Italy, and Napoleon definitely had the upper hand. In 1797, the French forced the Hapsburgs to cede some of their Italian territories and sign the Treaty of Campo Formio.
That same year, the composer Franz Peter Schubert was born in Vienna, the fourth of the five children of Franz Theodore and Elisabeth Schubert who survived infancy. Young Franz was exposed to music by his family, who were accomplished amateurs, though the senior Schubert earned his meager living as an entrepreneurial schoolteacher. Varying numbers of students, none of whom were from the noble classes, received basic education at the school located below the family’s second-floor quarters.
By age 7, the younger Franz was showing such prodigious musical talent that an interview with Antonio Salieri, music director to the Imperial Court, was arranged. Franz was chosen as one of nine boys for special instruction, leading to a position in the Hofkapelle (court chorus). This prestigious post included admission to the best boarding school available to the 11-year-old budding composer, who by now was a regular pupil of Salieri and a good academic student as well.
During his years at the Hofkapelle, Schubert lived through two frightening invasions of Vienna by Napoleonic forces and witnessed the rise to power of Austrian foreign minister Metternich, against whose policies he later protested. Forced to complete his studies after his voice changed, Schubert returned home, completed a brief pedagogy course, and began teaching at his father’s school. An overview of Schubert’s compositions from 1815 (the year of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo) suggests that teaching was not his main focus: over 700 songs, two string quartets, two symphonies, and four Singspiele (German operas).
Despite an expanding number of influential friends and successful house concerts of his works, Schubert was unable to find employment in music. Meanwhile, his relationship with his employer/father suffered because of his son’s lackluster performance as a teacher. Eventually, the composer moved out of the family home, rooming with a friend for a while. This was to set the pattern for the remainder of Schubert’s life—a rather nomadic existence in the company of those who respected his musical talents and enjoyed times of convivial fellowship.
1817 was no exception to what had become the composer’s regular pattern of composing and house concerts, though only 60 songs and a few other works emanated from his pen. One of those works was Schubert’s famous song, Die Forelle (The Trout). In the same year, the String Trio, D. 581, included on the present concert, was completed. (The “D.” refers to the 1951 catalog of Schubert’s works compiled by Otto Erich Deutsch.)
In the opening gestures of D. 581, Schubert illustrates both his admiration for and significant departure from the world of Beethoven. Like his Viennese predecessor, Schubert judiciously exploits silence to punctuate the expressive figures that open this work. But he is no mere Beethoven wannabe. Even before the opening gesture repeats (in the tenth measure), we hear syncopated melodic leaps, one of which stretches more than two octaves. Nevertheless, the symmetry and balance of Viennese Classicism remain the norm.
Expanding on the style of his predecessors, Schubert allows hints of a colorful, new harmonic language to sneak into the exposition of this sonata-form movement. This penchant flowers in the succeeding development section, which slyly begins in the foreign key of G-flat major and then shifts dramatically to the minor side of the same tonic. An expected return to the opening phrase coincides with the re-establishment of B-flat major, the trio’s home key.
Like its predecessor, the playful second movement effectively uses silence to delineate the small figures of its opening melody, but it substitutes jauntiness for the serious (and slower) movement usually offered by Viennese classicists. In fact, one wonders if Schubert is purposely taunting his audience with such bending of conventions. Another unexpected twist involves beginning the contrasting second section of this three-part movement by recalling contrapuntal studies he must have had under Salieri’s teaching. Each of the three instruments enters in turn, with the violin imitating the viola’s melodic figure. Cleverly, Schubert also includes a small set of variations on the opening theme; this is likely a nod to the practice of casting slow movements in theme-and-variation form.
Interestingly, the singing third movement reverts to the pre-Beethoven and leisurely minuet (rather than the sprightly scherzo Beethoven popularized). Like most of the work, primary melodic interest is assigned to the violin. Refreshingly, the mellow timbres of the viola come to the fore in the contrasting trio section of the dance.
Apparently satisfied with his forays outside of tradition, Schubert writes an easy-going rondo as the trio’s finale. Music theorists would use the diagram ABACA to illustrate its easily discernible structure, though the composer seems more interested in the extended transitions than making the themes themselves memorable. It is noteworthy, however, that the highest pitch in the entire work (a very high B-flat) occurs three measures before the end.
Quintet in A Major, D. 667, The Trout (1819)
Schubert’s life continued much as it had since moving out of his father’s house: enjoying the company of friends and admirers eager to hear his latest works, but not finding the stability of a position in music. Two glimmers of hope appeared in 1818, however. A performance of one of Schubert’s overtures “in the Italian style” became his introduction to the Viennese public, and one of his many songs appeared in print for the first time.
A year or so later, the composer was famously vacationing with his friend, Johann Vogl, a successful operatic baritone and composer, far away from the city. One of their stops was in the north Austrian town of Steyr, where he met, among others, Sylvester Paumgartner a local patron of the arts and amateur cellist. According to Anton Stadler, another of Schubert’s friends, Paumgartner engaged the composer to write the second work on this evening’s program, the Quintet in A Major, D. 667. The commission included two primary stipulations: 1) its instrumentation must be that of a work by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778–1837), which also featured the unusual combination of violin, viola, cello, bass, and piano, and 2) the fourth movement must be based on Schubert’s song Die Forelle (“The Trout”). The resultant five-movement quintet is now Schubert’s most famous chamber work.
Commentators often make the case that much of the work is inspired by the song’s lilting accompaniment, the primary feature of which is a sextuplet that leaps by a sixth at the end. This is said to symbolize the jumping of the “capricious trout” in a clear brook. Therefore, the piano’s rising opening gesture, later taken up by the violin and cello, takes on a deeper meaning than a simple, rising arpeggio (with a sextuplet rhythm).
Also obvious in the introductory material is the foundational presence of the double bass. As if to make the point, Schubert assigns the instrument a sustained pedal “A” for the first ten measures, shifting to an “F” for the next twelve bars. Not only does this passage effectively introduce the listener to the wide range of pitch and timbral resources, but it also reveals the signature harmonic motion—chromatic third relation—that characterizes the entire quintet. Another trait of Schubert’s harmony—here and in many other works—is abrupt shifting from major to minor. Such a place occurs just before the second theme of the sonata-form first movement.
When that theme finally arrives in the traditional key of the dominant major, it is presented by the piano alone. Reducing the instrumentation serves to punctuate the major sections of the form both here and other places in the quintet. One can hear this device at the beginning of the first movement’s development section, where only the viola and cello play the dotted figure that opens that part of the form. Similarly, the piano drops out as the recapitulation begins.
Interestingly, Schubert finds another way of signaling form in the slower second movement. In this case, he introduces a contrasting rhythmic figure to achieve variety. While the first section of the three-part form features dotted and sextuplet figures (again), the contrasting middle section introduces the “Lombardic” rhythm, a dotted figure that places the shorter note first (rather than the normal long-short, dotted gesture). One also notices that the major/minor and mediant shifts continue to inform and add to the drama.
Speaking of drama, the opening of the scherzo presents a stark contrast to the placidity of the second movement’s final bars. Unlike the String Trio, D. 581, this dance movement rivals those of Beethoven for energy and liveliness. As expected, the movement is in A-B-A form. However, Schubert writes a smaller A-B-A form in the first “A” section of the larger form, making for even greater unity.
At last, we arrive at the long-awaited variations on Die Forelle, the central focus of the quintet. The movement begins with a quiet, straight-forward presentation of the song with the melody in the violin. With the exception of the fourth one, each variation features the song’s tune played by different instruments (in this order): piano, viola, cello/bass (sounding in octaves), cello/violin (divided). Inserted before the last of these is the dramatic fourth variation, which begins with Schubert’s signature shift to minor and an arresting fanfare in the piano. Schubert then restates the theme with the original piano accompaniment of the song. Quiet repetitions of the sextuplet figure bring the masterful movement to a close.
One might think that this unusual work could end there and be quite fulfilling. However, the Classic sentiment, still very much alive for Schubert, calls for a frolicking finale. Rather than the oft-chosen rondo form, the composer chooses sonata form, but, as we shall see, presents a clever twist on its conventions. The movement begins with an arresting single note, the dominant “E” in A major. This gesture returns to signal the development in this sonata form, but, significantly, is avoided at the recapitulation. This is a hint at an even greater departure from the norm: Schubert decides to forego the repetition of first theme. Instead, he aligns the obligatory return to the tonic key with the second theme, which, both here and in the exposition, clearly reminds the listener of “The Trout.” When he finally returns to the opening melodic gesture, it is heard pianissimo and with a sustained “A” in the bass, reminiscent of the opening of the entire quintet. Soon thereafter, we are reminded of the motion to “F” (the submediant) heard in measure 11 of the opening movement. As if to seal the deal, the violin plays three ascending sextuplets just before the quintet makes it final, dramatic statement.
Perhaps it is no wonder that Schubertiades—performances featuring only the works of Franz Schubert—like our concert this evening have been held in many quarters since the first one in 1822. This composer, who ultimately fell victim to his own revelry, was nevertheless an innovative musical genius whose voluminous catalog of works we can still enjoy nearly 200 years after his untimely death in 1828.
© 2021 Phillip Thomas, Ph.D.