Schubert – Quintet for Piano and Strings in A Major, Op. 114 D. 667 “Trout Quintet”

by Max Derrickson

Franz Schubert     (b Vienna, 31 Jan 1797; Vienna, 19 Nov 1828)

Quintet for Piano and Strings in A Major, Op. 114 D. 667 “Trout Quintet”
1. Allegro vivace
2. Andante
3. Scherzo. Presto – Trio
4. Theme & Variations. Andantino
5. Finale. Allegro giusto

The genesis of the Trout Quintet is a charming story.  It was the summer of 1819 inVienna.  The young Schubert, only 22, had been studying privately with the famous Antonio Salieri (1750-1825, Mozart’s famous rival), feverishly composing and working as a schoolteacher to make ends meet.  Most nights he could be found behind a piano at Viennese societal gatherings, performing his own works (already several hundred lieder, or art songs, to his name).  Still as yet to be published or performed in a formal concert, Schubert was desperately trying to make a name for himself.   And then the famous opera baritone, Johann Vogl, an early admirer of Schubert’s, invited him as his guest for a summer in Steyr, the picturesque art colony nestled in the Austrian Alps.  The grandeur of the mountain countryside alone was dazzling to Schubert who had never been outside ofVienna.  But most promising were the weekly musical salons, sponsored by the wealthy patron Sylvester Paumgartner, where the young composer soon became the center of attention.  It was perhaps the most enriching and enchanting summer of his life, and when Schubert returned toVienna, he wrote the Trout Quintet as a thank you gift for Paumgartner, an amateur cellist.

There are several remarkable qualities to the Trout Quintet: it has five movements instead of the traditional four; the entire work was completed in less than one week; and most musically fortuitous is Schubert’s addition of a string bass to the instrumentation instead of an additional violin or viola to complete the quintet.  With the addition of the bass, Schubert had the freedom to explore more combinations of sonorities, a compositional trait
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What is most enduringly remarkably about this lovely piece is the vitality and lightness of spirit in the entire work.  Every movement tingles with an infectious cordiality – a snapshot, no doubt, of Schubert’s blissful experiences in Steyr.
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The second movement Andante is a splendid balancer to the first movement, tempering its festiveness with gentleness, but with no less melodic brilliance.  The intoxicating writing has the feel of an affectionate lullaby wafting above happy dreams.
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The fourth movement Andantino, Theme and Variations, is a remarkably clever addition to the quintet structure, and is the movement for which the work was nicknamed because of its incorporation of Schubert’s art song “The Trout.”  Of the many art songs Schubert had written, “The Trout” (Die Forelle) had become quite popular inVienna, and Paumgartner was fond of it, so Schubert cleverly reworked it as a gift to his admiring patron.
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The Trout Quintet has become one of the most cherished and recognizable chamber pieces ever written, for, despite its length, there is rarely a moment without something splendidly effervescent to hear.  Ironically, however, the work (despite its excellence and generous intentions) overestimated Paumgartner’s playing abilities and was shelved after its first read through and remained unpublished until well after Schubert’s death.