Curating Music History: 1st movement from the String Quintet (Schubert)
The String Quintet (“The Great”) by Schubert is one of the masterworks of the Chamber Music repertoire. Set for two violins, viola and two celli, it is usually performed by an established string quartet with an invited guest ‘cellist. This is due to the fact that the string quartet is one of the standard chamber music settings, with professional chamber music ensembles often taking this line-up. The string Quintet however is quite an unusual setting after the Classical era (post 1750), when the idea of the string quartet started to become the dominant chamber music form from Haydn onwards.
The String Quintet was one of the last compositions that Schubert wrote, with it being completed a mere two months before his death. Weighing in at nearly an hour long (don’t worry, the first movement here is only around 15 minutes!), it is an epic piece to perform. I still remember the times that I had performed it with fond memories, unfortunately, it is no longer a piece that falls in the area of my current specialisation, and so I never have the chance to play it any more.
The first movement featured here is (together with the last movement), by my humble taste, the best of the entire piece. The second subject is one of the most memorable moments in music, almost guaranteed to bring a tear to anyone’s eye if you are listening… you will know the moment (it appears several times in the piece), it is just so full of longing and yearning. In case you miss it, the first appearance is around 2:00 when it is introduced by the two celli.
The contrast between the stormy strength of the first subject (after the somewhat lengthy introduction) and the incredibly tender second subject is really what brings out the pure tear jerkiness of the change. I promise, I’ve never shed a small tear on stage… only dust in the eyes from the rosin!
In this piece, I’ve played both as the first violinist and the violist, and I have to say that the viola part is the most amazing, switching between partnering with the trebles of the violins and the tenor/bass of the ‘celli. You are the pivot around which the entire piece turns, a place of importance that is not often given to the viola!
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was an Austrian composer who bridged the divide between the Classical and Romantic eras of music. He is best known for his lieder writing (a particular style of song), and perhaps also his last symphony (the 8th, otherwise known as the “Unfinished”) which is often associated with the Smurfs (being the theme linked to Gargarmel!).
As a musician, I have mixed feelings about the music of Schubert. He tends to write some amazing moments of music, within an overarching structure that tends on the overlong for my particular taste. So another way to say that, I often have to weigh up if the 10% that I love in a particular piece is worth the 90% which I would rather miss! Of course, this is a little bit harsh, and not all of his compositions are like that! This particular one is a case in point, the first movement is amazing and as is the last movement (the fourth), so in this case, it leads to a hit rate of roughly 50% measured by time duration of the movements!
This performance was a live recording for the ChamberFest Cleveland in 2015
Yura Lee and David Bowlin, violins
Dimitri Murrath, viola
Clive Greensmith and Peter Wiley, cellos
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