Schubert, String Quintet in C Major, Op. 163, D. 956

Franz Schubert, 1797-1828

String Quintet in C Major, Op. 163, D. 956, 1828

Franz SchubertThe British composer Benjamin Britten once commented that the few years encompassing Beethoven’s late string quartets and Schubert’s final works were likely the most fruitful in the entire history of Western music. For chamber music lovers, fours years in Vienna between 1824-1828 proved to be a watershed yielding what many would unequivocally regard as the finest chamber music ever, unsurpassed to this day. Schubert’s “last year” was, alone, a miracle, perhaps especially catalyzed by Beethoven’s death and Schubert’s own serious illness, his clear impending fatality. Desperate to fill the void and make his own lasting mark in the realm of “serious” music, Schubert labored to produce two towering piano trios, three massive piano sonatas, his last song cycle Winterriese, and, finally, the exquisite string quintet. Only 31 years old, Schubert left a legacy that would take decades for the world to unearth and appreciate. An anonymous writer found on the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) offers this dramatic picture:

“The Quintet was to be Schubert’s last completed work. In mid-October of 1828 – just a few weeks after having completed the Quintet – Schubert’s appetite disappeared. Weakened by tertiary syphilis and the toxic, mercury-based medications he was taking for the syphilis, Schubert took to his bed with a high, persistent fever, almost certainly caused by a bacterial typhoid infection. Schubert died at three o’clock in the afternoon on November 19, 1828. The String Quintet in C Major – scored for two violins, a viola, and two ‘cellos – is among the handful of greatest chamber works ever composed. (That is not an opinion; that is a fact.).”

It is rather poignant that Schubert requested a performance of Beethoven’s otherworldly Op. 131 String Quartet on his deathbed while, years later, several musical luminaries would, in turn, request Schubert’s quintet for theirs. It is especially ironic that the quintet would lay fallow among Schubert’s papers, unpublished for nearly thirty years until 1853. It is even possible that Schubert himself never heard even a rehearsal of the quintet, ultimately knowing it only within his own mind.

Even by the special standards of Schubert’s “heavenly lengths”, the quintet is on an epic scale lasting close to an hour by the clock and something more like eternity by the human sense of aesthetic, experiential time. The first movement alone is longer than many Haydn quartets in their entirety and its opening materials suggest this epic scale within the first few minutes. The sprawling slow movement is a whole world unto itself, a special prize striking many as a soundtrack for the ultimate transcendence. A rousing, rustic Scherzo pulls us earthbound again but only until the trio departs again for rarefied territory like a fairytale telling a story within a story. The finale is the shortest of the four movements, and it dances marvelously along while particular Viennese elegance until a kind of desperate, perhaps fatalistic impulse drives it into a Gypsy tarantella, rushing against ultimate clock. Throughout, we experience a wealth of Schubert’s finest themes, textures and dramatic narratives cast in a uniquely rich ensemble featuring two cellos. All along, we are immersed in that peculiar Schubertian dichotomy of sublime lyrical euphoria on one hand, and dark, profoundly unsettling anxiety on the other, an oscillation between two mighty poles suggesting life and death, or perhaps, life and the unknown afterlife. If only Schubert could have known how his final achievement makes us feel.

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