Quintet for Piano and Strings in A major, D. 667, “Trout”
Composed in 1819; 35 minutes
The song Die Forelle (The Trout) is one of Schubert’s most winsome creations, as beloved in his own day as it is in ours. On the surface, the musical image of a fish darting through bright water as waves gently lap at the brook’s banks is a guileless specimen of Romantic tone painting. Like so many of Schubert’s lieder, however, this miniature masterpiece has hidden depths, which the composer plumbed when he adapted Die Forelle as a set of variations for the unconventional—and somewhat incongruous—ensemble of piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass.
To be sure, The Trout isn’t all there is to the “Trout” Quintet. It’s just one of five movements, inserted between a scintillating Scherzo—two brisk, sharply accented panels framing a more relaxed Trio section—and a dance-like finale marked Allegro giusto, in two mirror-image parts. Despite its leisurely pace, the fourth-movement Andantino has neither the emotional profundity nor the harmonic adventurousness of the sensuous Andante that precedes it. Nevertheless, the playful theme and its five contrasting variations are the very heart of the quintet. One can well imagine the delighted shock of recognition that early nineteenth-century listeners must have felt as the five players put the familiar tune through a series of increasingly intricate elaborations, each one featuring a different instrument or pair of instruments (including the decidedly untrout-like double bass), before reprising it in all its pristine simplicity.
The first-movement Allegro vivace takes a cue from the rippling sextuplets that underlie the original piano-vocal Trout: the ascending triplets in the piano’s opening bars are soon revealed as one of the movements organizing motifs. In similar fashion, the finale builds on rhythmic patterns associated with Schubert’s song. (Try tapping out the main theme at half-tempo and think of swimming fish.) Schubert apportions the thematic material more or less equally between piano and strings, a characteristically economical way of varying his tonal palette. Harmonically, the quintet is constructed as a kind of double arch, with the F-major Andante and D-major Scherzo bridging the A-major pillars of the first, third and fifth movements. There are, however, some surprising twists and turns, notably the excursion into the harmonically remote realm of F-sharp minor for the second theme of the Andante, a darkly intense duet for viola and cello.
Schubert wrote the “Trout” Quintet at the behest of Sylvester Paumgartner, a wealthy mine manager and patron of the arts in the small Austrian town of Steyr, just south of Linz. They met in the summer of 1819, when the composer was vacationing in the mountains with his singer friend Michael Vogl. Paumgartner apparently played the cello well enough to give a passable account of the challenging score. Schubert, at all events, was happy to leave the priceless manuscript in his possession; not until after the composer’s death in 1828 did Vogl think to retrieve it. (Sadly, the autograph has since vanished.) A year later, Josef Czerny published the quintet both in its original form and in a transcription for piano duet. Thus launched, the “Trout” Quintet quickly established itself as a classic of the chamber-music repertory. A leading Viennese journal, the Wiener allgemeine Theaterzeitung, reported in 1829 that “this quintet has already, at the publisher’s instigation, received several private performances and has been declared to be a masterpiece by the musical connoisseurs present.”
© 2014 Harry Haskell
Back to Top