Reflections on Schubert's String Quintet

by James Nicholas

As I contemplate the nature of the late chamber music of Beethoven and Schubert, Vienna's two greatest composers during the brief period between 1824 and 1828, I am astonished on the one hand by the striking developments in their compositional languages, and perhaps even more astonished by their exploration of what might be called hitherto unprobed spiritual states or worlds. The musical styles themselves reflect the newness of the messages. In Beethovenís last quartets, for example, the obscuring of beats and bar lines, and the tendency to cadence on weak parts of beats, often on the least emphatic inversion of a chord, create the overall impression that the masterís last musical utterances are not so much revolutionary, heroic, or titanic as they are testaments of mildness, of human frailty, even of vulnerability. In short: Beethoven, at the end of his musical life, is not ashamed to become just human. And as presumptuous as it sounds, I feel that, at least to a point, I understand late Beethoven. But Schubertís genius is so subtle, so profoundly elusive, that I almost cannot fathom it. Schubert was still a young man, only thirty years old, when Beethoven died, and he himself had only one more year to live. In his case, the language of the later utterances is far more disturbing. The ultimate irony of the choice of G major for the last of his quartets (D.887, 1826) is an example; the unprecendented violence, jarring contrasts, and bitter mockery in this work have no parallel (not even in Beethoven) until the Sixth Symphony of Gustav Mahler (1904). By 1828, Schubert's style incorporates some less easily definable, though no less unsettling, elements. The Mass in E-flat (D.950), dating from the summer of 1828, is "meant to inspire terror rather than prepare its listeners spiritually and, in keeping with tradition, put them in the right frame of mind for the Sacrifice of the Mass," in the words of musicologist Werner Aderhold. Often quietly brooding, sometimes cataclysmically dramatic, it leaves me again and again with the feeling that Schubert is saying "I do not believe."1 The same undercurrent of uneasiness, wavering faith, and ill-concealed fear permeates the last three piano sonatas and the String Quintet, Schubertís last instrumental compositions. There is a certain irony, again, about the choice of the key of C major for this quintet, a work which I constantly hear labelled, too casually, as "beautiful". Merely beautiful. But C major, the most "neutral" key, can be a vehicle for the darkest as well as for the most optimistic statements, and it is the dark side of C major, or rather, the darkness behind the faÁade of "bright" C major, which stamps this work indelibly and renders its character so amazingly, artfully ambiguous.

The opening Allegro ma non troppo begins with a crescendo on a long-held tonic chord, reminiscent of the beginning of the G-major quartet. As in that work, the tonality is already undermined in the third bar. The tempestuous full presentation of the opening theme in the deepest register of the cellos is followed by an equally stormy transition to the famous, blissful second theme first intoned pianissimo, again by the two cellos. Steven Isserlis comments on the truly miraculous series of keys and modulations through which this theme passes: E-flat major, C major, and G major; it then repeats the entire process before continuing on with its increasingly exalted canonic extension. Throughout the first movement, ecstasy and apprehension are held in precarious balance.

The principal theme of the E-major Adagio is a variant of the opening of the song Auf dem Strom (On the River, D.943), also in E major and composed in March 1828. The "river" of Rellstabís poem is a symbol of the inevitable crossing (i.e. death) from a familiar existence into the unknown, with all of its accompanying anxiety, frenzy, and eventual resignation.2 Whether Schubert's allusion to On the River is conscious or not, the hypnotic, static, almost emotionless nostalgia of the Adagio's first part gives way to what violist Allan George called "the nightmare of reality" in the second, which is in the Neapolitan key of F minor. (F minor is the key of some of Beethovenís most vehement and violent works: the piano sonatas Op. 2 no. 1 and Op. 57 "Appassionata", and the quartet op. 95 "Serioso"). Significantly, F minor is alluded to again at the very end of the Adagio, but we are spared a return to the middle section. A stunning modulation brings the movement to a weary but peaceful close in E major, traditionally the key representing Heaven.

The almost ferocious exuberance and life-affirmation of the Scherzo, in C major, with its suggestions of robust hunting horns, could not be a more complete (I would say shocking) contrast to the Adagio; so much more shocking, then, is the Trio (Andante sostenuto, again in the Neapolitan key of D-flat major). This unearthly utterance, which modulates continually to ever more remote keys, has been likened to the revelation of a great secret Ė in a mystical language which we cannot understand. If ever we were to be allowed a glance into the supernatural, and to come away from it forever changed, this would be the only music fit to accompany that moment. There is a family resemblance between this trio and the chorus "In der Tiefe wohnt das Licht" ("In the depths there dwells the Light") from Rosamunde; there, the prominence of the trombones (associated with the underworld or the supernatural by composers from Monteverdi to Mozart) underscores the unearthly nature of the piece.

The finale, with its sublimation of Viennese-Hungarian café music, becomes by turns nostalgic and even listless in mood as the movement goes on. In the coda, we are set up for what finally appears to be a lighthearted, comic-opera ending. It soon turns traumatic, however; the terrible F minor of the Adagio is alluded to unmistakably in bars 419-420 (thanks are again due to Steven Isserlis for that observation) and the stinging irony of the Neapolitan D-flat trill and appoggiatura in the last bars is emblematic not only of the finale but of the work as a whole; a work which, contrary to the norm for its time, makes a journey from light (at least partial light) into darkness.

What to make of this enigmatic, monumental masterwork? For us cellists, it is the "cello" quintet. For many of us, and for many other string players, it's possibly the greatest piece of chamber music ever written, Beethoven's quartets notwithstanding. Vast in conception and in its spectrum not only of pitch and dynamics, but of emotional states as well, it is truly new and without precedent. At its first public performance, twenty-five years after its composition, it was still viewed as futuristic. Straddling both Classicism and Romanticism, it has no real predecessors, and no true successors. Mystical, visionary, unfathomable, it is intoxicatingly, sensuously beautiful and frighteningly grim, with one foot in Hades and the other in Paradise. What is its ultimate message?

A few observations on performance practice:

Tempo: Our controversial performance at Indiana University in 1985 attempted to incorporate the most recent research on aspects of Schubertian performance style. Special mention should be made of one aspect of delivery in which Schubert appears to have differed substantially from, for example, Beethoven: his dislike of arbitrary alterations in tempo. The baritone Johann Michael Vogl (1768-1840), who was not only Schubertís close friend but the singer whom Schubert admired above all others, nevertheless recounts that during rehearsals, Schubert would frequently admonish him with: "Kein Ritardando" or "Keine Fermate" ("No ritardando", "No fermata").3 Schubert seems also to have desired very smooth, seamless transitions at meter changes. In a letter dated May 10, 1828, to the publisher Probst regarding the E-flat Piano Trio, D.929, he has this to say: "See to it that really capable players are found for the first performance, and above all, where the time changes in the last section, that the rhythm is not lost." A similar meter change is found in the last movement of the B-flat trio, D.898, where the time shifts from 2/4 to 3/2; there it is obvious that half-note equals half-note. A long-standing problem in the beginning of the Ninth Symphony (D.944, 1828)4 was created through the suppression of the alla breve sign in every available score; namely, how to make a logical transition from the Andante into the ensuing Allegro ma non troppo. The usual solution is to simply ignore the literal translation of Andante as "going, walking", and to replace the "allegro ma non troppo" with "presto" ("hurried"), making a massive accelerando between the two sections. But Schubert wrote a large and flamboyant alla breve sign at the beginning of every staff of the autograph score (it's hard to believe that every nineteenth-century editor, including Johannes Brahms, missed it, unless they did so intentionally, and replaced it with a common-time C). The solution, then, is simple: the eighth-note triplets of the Andante are exactly equal to the quarter-note triplets of the Allegro. Essentially, this means that the Andante has traditionally been played far too slowly, and that the Allegro ma non troppo is usually heard too quickly. A similar problem exists in the third movement of the C-major quintet: there is actually a smooth transition between the Scherzo and the Trio, expressly written out in whole-bar rests, and it would be unfortunate to mar this by taking the tempo too slowly in the Trio (the first edition shows an alla breve sign at the beginning of the Trio; subsequent editions changed this to C). If one bar of Scherzo equals one quarter note in the Trio, the effect will be one of seamlessness; the upbeat into the retransition to the Scherzo will also sound much more natural. I would also urge performers to keep the tempo the same for all three sections of the second movement (Adagio); obviously, the E-major outer sections cannot be too slow. We kept the 12/8 variation of the Adagio of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in mind when choosing a tempo for this movement.

Intonation: During Schubert's lifetime, piano tuning was approaching, but apparently had not quite settled into, equal temperament. For the string player, such compromised tuning was not a necessity. Schubert received his training in string playing at a time when the Classical principle of low sharps and high flats was still valid. (The recordings of Joseph Joachim [1831-1907] demonstrate that he, too, belonged to this school). That is, D-sharp is lower by one comma (one-ninth of a whole step) than E-flat; this is directly contrary to today's practice. In a piece so filled with modulations for the sake of sheer color, playing thirds as pure as possible (major thirds narrower than on the piano, minor thirds wider) makes those colors seem even more luminous. In the enharmonic modulation in bars 39-40 of the Trio of the third movement, we experimented with a suggestion made by Quantz in his flute treatise: adjusting the intonation of the enharmonically altered notes so that they were not actually the same pitches. Thus, in the A-major chord (bar 39), we played pure (low) C-sharps. In the following D-flat major chord (bar 40), we raised the C-sharp one comma to D-flat, of course also playing a pure (high) A-flat and F. As the color of the light in the room around us changed, we knew that we were on to something! The effect is enchanting; I urge you to try it.

Vibrato: We adopted the view held by the vast majority of both eighteenth- and nineteenth-century string players; namely, that the vibrato or tremolo is an ornamental device used especially to enliven long notes, but that it is to be applied with discretion and certainly not constantly.

Trills: At about the time that the Quintet was composed, there began a shift away from the Classical principle of starting with the upper note on the beat (Ludwig Spohr was one of the first and best-known advocates of this new manner of performing trills). However, there are indications that Schubert preferred the older style. When Schubert wrote trills in which the upper note is chromatically altered, he did not simply write an accidental above the trill sign, as was for example Schumannís custom a decade or two later. Instead, he wrote out the chromatically altered note before the principal note. Three examples can be found in the second cello part of the Quintet: mvt. 1, bar 426; mvt. 2, bar 28; and mvt. 4, bar 425. There are also several similar instances in the finale of the B-flat Piano Trio, D.898.


1. Schubert habitually omitted some phrases from the Mass text, in this case notably from the Creed. Was this an oversight or a conscious rejection of certain points of doctrine? His contempt for the clergy is well documented.

2. This figurative understanding of the text seems less like conjecture when one hears Schubert's setting of the second stanza. There is an almost exact quotation of the theme of the funeral march from Beethoven's"Eroica" Symphony. Schubert evened out the dotted rhythms and, in a revision of his first conception, made other alterations to make the quotation less literal.

3. Deutsch, Otto Eric: Schubert: Die Erinnerungen seiner Freunde, p. 291. Leipzig, 1966.

4. It is now almost universally acknowledged that the "Great C-major" Symphony is identical to the legendary "lost" symphony in C Major or C minor composed at Gmunden-Gastein in 1825. Schubert presented the autograph as a gift to the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna in October of 1826, and by August 1827 at the latest the Gesellschaft owned a complete set of parts corresponding to the symphony we know today. The manuscript which was discovered by Robert Schumann at the home of Schubert's brother Ferdinand was, in Ferdinand's own words, "only a careful copy which I made myself." In early 1828, Schubert evidently took on the tedious task of revising the shape of the opening theme of the Allegro ma non troppo (in all of its hundreds of appearances) from c-g-c-g-c-g-c-g-c to c-g-c-d-c-g-c-d-c. This is probably the reason why the date now reads "March 1828."

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