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Franz Schubert: the Trout Quintet

Posted by Richard on UTC 2016-02-07 16:54.

Schubert, Greatest Hits

On any list of the greatest hits of classical music, Franz Schubert's Forellenquintett, D 667, would have a place near the top.

Wrong. After five minutes of searching it is clear that in the various lists proposed by popular English-language websites, Schubert hardly ever appears. In that five minutes I never came across any mention of the Forellenquintett or Trout Quintet. The only comfort for a Schubert fan such as me is that the contents of the lists, whether top ten, top hundred or even top two-hundred, are substantially different from each other and therefore can be completely discounted as reliable sources of information. The comments on the individual pieces are mostly emetically specious.

Still, I had better reformulate the indefensible assertion in that first sentence: Franz Schubert's Forellenquintett, and particularly the fourth movement, the 'Theme and Variations', is a delightful and, for non-specialists, extremely accessible piece of classical music.

This fact alone makes the piece stand out. When confronted with the formalistic messing about that is usually titled 'Variations' the untrained listener to classical music will usually stick their fingers in their ears – quite rightly in my opinion. Variations can be interesting if you play an instrument and can take some pleasure in the details of the composer's manipulations, but generally they lack any reason for their existence apart from being examples of musical manipulation. Some pieces transcend this formalism: the Forellenquintett is one of these.

Accessibility. If asked to recommend a piece for those who want to start listening to classical music, is there a better piece than the Forellenquintett? The fourth movement is instantly accessible. Not only that, it will reward re-listening: after a dozen hearings the listener will still find charming details and unimagined subtleties in the piece. Listeners can then take in the other movements, whereupon the work as a whole will start to reveal its complex structure. Schubert's instrumental setting is low-pitched – as it is on that other, later, masterpiece the String Quintet D 956. There may be others like me who find the deeper register pleasant.

At the same time, despite its accessibility and likeability, experts cannot ever claim that the Forellenquintett is a light or trivial piece of music. Schubert never wrote light or trivial music: his own standards were too high and he never compromised the quality of the music he wrote for a quick effect. By any measure he is a very serious composer indeed.

Musicologists are not unlike forensic pathologists. Some beautiful young body lies on the table before them; they slice it apart, making sure that all the expected organs are in their expected positions; slice open skulls and crack open rib-cages; they look for trauma, damage and anything at all that may hint at a defect; finally they sew the wreckage back together again with coarse stitches, ready now only for the worm or the flames. As the Austrian musicologist Hans Gál put it, in a remark that deserves the repetition it gets:

Whoever wants to criticize should consider a mitigating circumstance: this is music which one would not lose for all the world, music whose magic transcends misgivings about form, nullifying all objections. [1]

The creation of the Forellenquintett

Now the usual embarrassments of Schubert scholarship make their presence felt. We have no idea when exactly Schubert wrote the Forellenquintett. We know that it was written at the request of Silvester Paumgartner in Steyr in Upper Austria. Paumgartner was a well-respected and high-level civil servant, a passionate amateur cellist, a rich bachelor with a large house and time, money and space to follow his musical hobby-horse. His apartment was on the first floor of the house, including a music room for his own practice. The second floor was a large salon used for the frequent midday concerts he hosted.

Location of Steyr in Austria.

Schubert visited Steyr three times: in 1819, in 1823 and in 1825. A number of his friends had been born there, particularly his singing partner Johann Michael Vogl (1768-1840). Vogl accompanied him to Steyr on all three occasions.

On the first visit at the beginning July 1819 Vogl and Schubert stayed with the lawyer Albert Schellmann. Vogl and Schellmann introduced Schubert to the society of Steyr, including Paumgartner. In a busy social round there was much singing and playing for their suppers. In one of his rare letters Schubert wrote to his brother Ferdinand from Steyr:

In the house in which I'm staying there are eight girls, almost all pretty. You see that I am being kept busy. The daughter of Herrn von Koller, with whom Vogl and I dine every day, is very pretty, plays the piano well and is going to sing some of my songs. [2]

The joking reference to the distraction of having so many pretty girls around him may have had a darker side. According to Otto Erich Deutsch, it was in Steyr that he heard the news of Therese Grob's engagement to her master baker (see 'Die schöne Müllerin', Chapter 4: The lost love ). The first great love of his life, the girl who, according to later accounts, had no idea what passions were raging in the heart of the little composer, was now definitively lost to him.

He and Vogl were back in Steyr briefly in August/September 1823. Some sources say that this time he stayed with Paumgartner, others that he stayed a second time with Schellmann. It doesn't matter. This time, however, there was much less of the busy social round – Schubert went for walks and spent much of his time in composing. There was probably a reason for this: the Damocles sword of the syphilis infection that was hanging over him at the time. Attentive readers of our piece on Die schöne Müllerin will now recall that the autumn of 1823, when he had to undergo an unpleasant hospital treatment, was a particularly distressing time for Schubert. That, plus the many rejections of his work must have pressed on his mind during his time in Steyr.

He returned to Steyr with Vogl in May 1825, once again, only briefly. This time we know that they stayed with Paumgartner himself. Some writers say that Paumgartner 'commissioned' the Forellenquintett from Schubert. It was certainly dedicated to Paumgartner. In Schubert studies, however, 'commissioned' is not to be confused with 'bought' or 'paid for'. It was traditional for the person honoured by a dedication to acknowledge it with money or a gift. The procedure of asking a person to accept the dedication of a work to them was in effect asking someone to pay for the honour of the dedication. As far as I know we have no record of Schubert's receiving any payment for the work. I apologise to Paumgartner's shade if I am wrong, but like so many of Schubert's works the 'commission' seems to have been done as a favour. It always annoys me to find rich and even extremely rich people expecting their talented underlings to work for them as a privilege for nothing or, if they are lucky, for a meal of sausage and some dumplings. Perhaps that is why they were rich and our composer was poor.

In one respect, though, it is accurate to speak of a commission. Paumgartner had very precise specifications for the work: it had to take as its model the 'Septet' opus 74 of Johann Nepomuk Hummel and have a particular instrumental setting. Schubert's song 'Die Forelle' from c. 1817 was popular and frequently performed at the Steyr performances. Because of its popularity Schubert wrote the fourth movement of Paumgartner's quintet, 'Theme and Variations', using five variations of the melody from the song, thus giving the Forellenquintett the name by which it was soon known.

It may very well be that the Forellenquintett was not written in Steyr itself, but written, for example, in Vienna and taken as a visitor's gift to Paumgartner in 1823 or 1825. Scholarly opinion is that the work was written in 1823. Does this matter? Not at all.

We assume the work was first performed at Paumgartner's salon. Characteristically for a Schubert work it stayed 'private' for six years or so until it was finally published in the spring of 1829, several months after Schubert's death. Apart from whatever Paumgartner may have given him it seems that Schubert gained nothing from the masterpiece of the Forellenquintett apart from the satisfaction of having created it. Even the manuscript suffered the characteristic Schubert fate: it was 'lost'.


  1. ^ Hans Gál (1890-1987), Franz Schubert oder die Melodie, Fischer, 1970, p. 133.
    Wer bereit ist, zu tadeln, möge einen mildernden Umstand in Betract ziehen: das ist Musik, die man nicht um die Welt missen möchte, Musik, deren Zauber über all Formbedenken hinweg jeden Widerspruch gegenstandslos macht.
  2. ^ Otto Erich Deutsch, Schubert: Die Dokumente seines Lebens, Breitkopf und Härtel, Leipzig, 1980, p. 82. [13. Juli 1819] Ich befinde mich bis jetzt recht wohl, nur will das Wetter nicht günstig sein. Es war hier gestern den 12. ein sehr starkes Gewitter, welches in Steyr einschlug, ein Mädchen tödtete und zwei Männer am Arme lähmte. In dem Hause, wo ich wohne, befinden sich 8 Mädchen, beynahe alle hübsch. Du siehst, dass man zu thun hat. Die Tochter des Herrn v. K(oller), bei dem ich und Vogl täglich speisen, ist sehr hübsch, spielt brav Klavier, und wird verschiedene meiner Lieder singen.