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Franz Schubert - Piano Quintet

Music > Chamber Music

Piano Quintet in A, D. 667 ('The Trout')

The Piano Quintet in A, D. 667, the so-called ‘Trout’ Quintet, may be the most popular piece of chamber music ever written. It is the product of a happy time, and of Schubert’s relative youth. It has its genesis in one of his walking-tours in Upper Austria in the company of one of his favourite friends, Vogl, during which he received a rather unusual commission from a wealthy art patron, Sylvester Paumgartner, also a keen amateur cellist and a chamber music addict.

The ensemble for which the quintet was written is not at all ordinary: a piano, a violin, a cello and a double bass. The three first movements are a kind of preparation for the fourth movement, and the fifth movement is a summary of the entire work, full of optimism and triumphant spirit. This is one of Schubert's calm, worry-free pieces, consisting solely of nature and beauty, and not a hint of sadness or anxiety.

'Trout' painting, Beethoven and all other composers listen

Paumgartner was delighted, and posterity has followed suit. The work’s unusual scoring, plus Schubert’s chosen style of piano-writing, the two hands playing in octaves in the upper register of the instrument for much if not most of the time, gives it a sound-world all its own. Also distinctive is the impression of almost continuous dialogue between the piano and the strings, rather than general conversation amongst all instruments. This dialogue, always developing, is delightfully unpredictable. The surprises come thick and fast, not least in a number of startling key changes in which he characteristically dispenses with the traditional route of modulation and simply shifts gear, moving at a stroke from one key centre to another. Perhaps due to the suddenness of the commission, Schubert seems to have composed the work in considerable haste.

In the recapitulations of both the first and last movements he takes the easy way out by starting each in the ‘wrong’ key, so that an exact transposition of the opening exposition will conveniently end up in the ‘right’ one without his having to do anything more about it. Then, too, the second half of the slow movement is exactly the same as the first half, though again transposed into a different key. Pedants and critics may grumble, but generations of musicians and music-lovers alike have found nothing but delight in this wonderful entertainment, no matter that Schubert may have dashed it off.

The beauty of this quintet was already revealed in its first performance and it became very popular among chamber music audiences ever-since. The work received its nickname for its fourth movement, the one which Schubert based it on the melody of one his own songs, "Die Forelle" ("The Trout"). The popular tune of the famous lied did not leave many options as to the title of this lovely quintet. It is important, however, to remember that the work is not a programme piece and it has no extra-musical mentioning, other than the title it was given.

I. Allegro vivace
II. Andante
III. Scherzo: Presto
Andantino - Allegretto
V. Allegro giusto.

Listen to the Trout Quintet

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