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Programme notes for “The Trout” Quintet

These notes are reproduced from the original programme notes for the Whittington International Chamber Music Schubert Fest 2014 and are copyright Christopher Symons.

Piano Quintet in A major (The Trout) Op 114,  D667 

Cheerful, irresistible and guaranteed to have any listener well and truly caught – hook, line and sinker – the final work this evening, Schubert’s ‘Trout’ quintet. Yet again, it is a work that was commissioned by a friend, Sylvester Paumgartner, in whose house Schubert had spent many a pleasant musical evening whilst on holidays in Steyr, Upper Austria. Sylvester, an amateur cellist and arts’ patron, had been entranced by the new piano quintet of Hummel, and equally bewitched by Schubert’s song Die Forelle (The Trout). As a result, he asked Schubert to write a piano quintet, and to include in it a set of variations on the Forelle theme.

Thus the quintet has ended up with five movements, the fourth of which is the actual set of variations, and can be viewed as a reflection of the joy that Schubert experienced in this lovely Alpine area. It was written in 1819, during the first of three visits he made to Steyr. The critic Massimo Mila observed: ‘In the Quintet is enshrined the memory of a delightful summer, of carefree leisure days: the music is bathed in sunshine and the spirit of youth.’

Why the unusual scoring – the normal would be string quartet plus piano, but here the second violin is replaced by double bass – is a matter of conjecture. Perhaps Sylvester wanted the cello freed from always having to supply the bass line: it could then have some of the lovely tunes that the upper strings and piano always got!  To simplify the task of composing five movements, Schubert uses a little guile. Two of the movements have a second half that exactly reproduces the first – but in a different key!

If ever music existed to be enjoyed by player friends amongst listener friends, this is surely it. The scoring is never heavy, not least because the piano writing is so deftly contrived : for often the two hands simply proceed in parallel octaves (unison), creating an impression of light and luminosity. (Think of Shostakovich, who also adopts the same technique frequently.) Finally, the whole work is given a sense of homogeneity by means of the rising sextuplet figure (taken from the original piano accompaniment to the song) which is found in all but one movement.

I  Allegro vivace  Immediately, with an upward arpeggio on the piano, the trout leaps to the surface for a fly  -and we are away! The simple melody is announced quietly in the strings, and before long the normal second theme. As usual in sonata form, both are developed, then recalled in the recapitulation.

II Andante   In F major, a movement of great serenity, perfectly illustrating Schubert’s ability to score economically and allow light to suffuse every bar. The first half has three distinct themes, which are then repeated in the second half, but in a different key (A flat major). This magical key change prevents any sense of our having been cheated, however.

III  Scherzo  In a wonderful contrast, this scherzo fair fizzles along. One imagines that friend Sylvester et al might have been at the schnapps a little too freely before sitting down to tackle this! The Trio restores a little calm, but it is short-lived as the scherzo reappears.

IV No sooner do we hear the famous Forelle melody announced than we are transported to the river bank and that dastardly fisherman, muddying the water with his boot and hooking the poor fish. The utter charm of the six variations springs from two devices – variation of key and decoration of melody. In the final variation we hear the familiar upward-darting figure in the piano accompaniment – perhaps this time the hooked fish desperately trying to leap free. A quickening of the tempo deepens the pathos – andantino to allegretto.

V  Allegro giusto   To end, another of those ‘cheating’ movements, with a repeated second half in a new key, and then, fishers all – pack away the rod and flies. It’s over, dusk is creeping on, and grilled trout beckons.