Is it cold where you live right now? Grey, wet and windy? Some music is like a warm blanket that you can wrap around yourself. Music full of warmth and light. Franz Schubert’s quintet in C major (D. 956) is such a mellow glow. I often listen to it in the evening when I sit on the sofa reading a novel. Usually I would either light the fireplace or at least a candle. And once the scherzo sets in, I would have tears in the eyes.
The quintet is the last piece of chamber music that Schubert completed before his death. It ranks among the most important pieces for chamber orchestra ever composed. Schubert’s original score is lost, but musicologists are confident that – judging from Schubert’s correspondence – it was written during autumn 1828, most likely in September. Unlike other quintets, it features two cellos instead of two violas. It has been recorded by the Rosamunde Quartet and is on the same album as Schubert’s Sonata for Piano and Arpeggione (D. 821), that I cherish as much as the quintet.
Late success and fame
The years 1827/28 have been two busy years for Schubert. He composed the melancholic cycle “Die Winterreise”, the piano trio in B flat major (D. 898) and the one in E flat major (D. 929), two sets of impromptus, the Fantasy in C major for violin and piano (D. 934) and the one in F minor for piano duet (D. 940), the Allegro in A minor (D. 947) and the Rondo in A major (D. 951), both for piano four hands.
What exactly spurred Schubert into action? We don’t know. Did he sense death? For sure, he knew for many years that he had contracted syphilis. But is that sufficient? Many of his scores were published during these two years, his works were repeatedly performed in Berlin, Graz, Hannover, Leipzig. He became increasingly known throughout the German-speaking world, and perhaps demand stimulated the offer. This is the theory that the Schubert biographer Gernot Gruber offers. Had Schubert discovered the laws of the market as Mozart had so many years before?
A first public concert
Oxford Music Online sums the situation up as follows: “For the first time in his career, Schubert felt emboldened to present a public concert devoted entirely to his own music. […] First planned for 21 March , it was changed to 26 March, the first anniversary of Beethoven’s death.” Beethoven – one of Schubert’s beacons. According to unconfirmed reports, Beethoven’s String Quartet in C sharp minor was performed at Schubert’s bedside on November 14, 1828. Five days later he would be dead.
The quintet in four movements is in any respect a brilliant and heart-warming farewell. I would like to quote the German music critic Joachim Kaiser characterizing this work with the following words: “Any friend of chamber music will bow before Schubert’s quintet in C major in happy adoration […] It is mysterious and it is consummate.” It epitomizes everything I love about Schubert.
© Charles Thibo