A cathedral of tragic tones
‘The richest and most productive eighteen months in music history’ is how the English composer Benjamin Britten described Franz Schubert’s final period, when works including the magisterial String Quintet in C major saw the light of day. For besides the quintet, Die Winterreise (Winter Journey), the Symphony in C major (‘the Great’) and the last three piano sonatas flowed from Schubert’s pen. Since Beethoven’s death in 1827, Schubert was engrossed in the development of largescale musical forms, and certainly succeeded in this in the fifty minutes of the quintet. It is not the music of a man who knows he will die by the age of thirty-one, but music born of an almost volcanic ambition, comparable to that of Beethoven when he entrusted his string quartets opus 18 to paper. Notable is Schubert’s preference for a second cello, shared with Boccherini, rather than a second viola as in the quintets of Mozart and Beethoven. Although the four-movement plan of Schubert’s quintet is entirely in the classical tradition of his age, it is already quite clear from the first two movements that there is mention of a grand scheme, as they slowly unfold to reveal a large-scale structure not unlike the later symphonic cathedrals of Anton Bruckner (who was four years old at the time).
Composed in September and October 1828, the String Quintet in C major was Schubert’s instrumental swan song. In September he had taken up lodgings at his brother’s house in the Viennese suburb of Wieden. Thus new life was breathed into domestic music making in the family circle, as quartets and piano sonatas were played and songs were sung. As ever, Schubert was at the very centre, sitting at the grand piano or playing the viola in the quartets, and it was probably this that sparked off composition of the quintet.