Programme notes for String Quintet in C

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

String Quintet in C major, D956 

To close this marvellous festival of Schubert’s chamber music, his own final and magnificent chamber composition – the C major String Quintet. It seems impossible that such a bubbling spring of music could be blocked so brutally by cruel Fate – and this just one year after he himself had been a torch-bearer at the funeral of his hero, Beethoven, in 1827.

As the music of these last three evenings has shown, as his writing matured and increasingly reflected his own individuality, it revealed an astonishing breadth of artistic expressiveness: it also empathised with the vagaries of the human condition far more deeply and sensitively than should have been possible in one of such tender age – and never more than in this final quintet. As with Beethoven (in the late quartets and piano sonatas) there are moments in the writing when all his life’s experience – bitter and sweet – seems to be distilled into an utter simplicity of expression, at once tragic and sun-filled, resigned yet still combative. That Beethoven should have developed this insight is perhaps understandable: but Schubert?  Aged 31? Take the opening of the second music, for example: it is Auden’s ‘Stop the clocks’: motion seems virtually halted, and just for a moment all pain and disappointment seems to vanish from Schubert. A gentle sunlight floods in, Earth recedes and some happier existence beckons. The music transcends what is for him, in his last days, physical decline, and enters a realm of pure spirituality and consolation.

His use of an extra cello (as opposed to Mozart’s extra viola) gives the texture an added richness, especially since both are used so flexibly, with equal weight and interest. The work was not heard in his own lifetime. It was first performed in Vienna in 1850, and published in 1853.

Allegro ma non troppo  The unclouded opening, slow and serene, sounds like an adagio, but it soon becomes clear that these long, sustained chords are in fact in the main allegro tempo, and very soon the opening theme materialises, briskly energetic. As this dies away, the magical second theme enters in the deeply intense tonality of A flat major – this the famous lyrical theme voiced in the two cellos, with the viola providing the bass line. Both themes are then developed, the mood shifting between the troubled minor key sections and the gentler major interludes. The coda brings a final flourish, briefly tempestuous, before turning once again to the more unclouded mood of the opening.

II  Adagio  In this much-loved movement the emotional tension derives from the two basic contrasted sections – the static E major opening and the more angst-ridden F minor intrusion which follows, turbulent and highly inflected. It is through the miraculous scoring of the instruments that Schubert seems able to conjure this uniquely mysterious atmosphere – stasis and movement, physical and spiritual.

III  Scherzo: presto – Trio: Andante sostenuto    As if to break the spell, we are straightway plunged into a scherzo of elemental power and almost manic exuberance, back once again in the home key of C major. An energetic rustic charm is provided by the double-stopping effect. A much more reflective Trio is given added colour and sonority by the choice of key – D flat major, as lush as they come. The return from this other realm to the earthly scherzo is suitably dramatic, vigorous and exhilarating.

IV  Allegretto   The opening C minor soon gives way to the major, and the first of a series of dances; in fact, the whole movement can most easily be understood as a kind of idealised, extended Viennese dance (such as had, after all, involved much of his Bohemian existence!). An extended section of fugato helps towards a general build-up of cumulative exultation, and the defiant bravado of the ending suggests that Schubert may well be down – but he certainly ain’t yet out!