String Quintet

Franz Schubert

String Quintet in C major

D956, Op. posth163, Op. 163

Recommended recording

Curated by Mary Elizabeth Kelly, Primephonic Curator

About this work

Benjamin Britten once suggested that "the richest and most productive eighteen months in music history" were "the period in which Franz Schubert wrote Winterreise, the C major symphony, his last three piano sonatas, the C Major String Quintet, as well as a dozen other glorious pieces." The String Quintet, D. 956 is certainly one of the pinnacles of the chamber music canon, and is often cited as a significant example of the composer's legacy.

Certainly in the period between the death of his idol, Beethoven, and his own passing, the 31-year-old Schubert achieved a breakthrough in large-scale forms the likes of which has not been seen since. But the Quintet strikes one more as young man's music than as a summary statement; there is a youthful ambition that is not unlike that of Beethoven's first string quartets.

For his scoring, Schubert went against the model of Mozart and Beethoven, who each added a second viola to the conventional string quartet for their quintets; Boccherini provided the only precedent for using two cellos. Schubert uses the second cello to create dense and varied textures: sometimes the cello serves as a second bass instrument under a full quartet, sometimes it's a bass-rich quartet sans violin, and sometimes there is a rich interplay between instrumental sections.

The first two movements have an expansive and deliberate buildup that seems to anticipate the sprawling structures of Anton Bruckner. But in most ways the piece remains quite conventional; it retains the standard four-movement format, and has an energetic scherzo (though a more wistful trio) and a zestful, almost Hungarian finale. Despite the bleak spaces of the slow movement, these movements suggest a youth's first steps into maturity, and the work as a whole serves as a tantalizing reminder of what might have been, had Schubert been granted more time to create and innovate.