In 1827 Franz Schubert held a candle during Beethoven’s funeral. Distressed by the death of the composer he revered above all others, Schubert’s thoughts turned to his own poor health and growing sense of mortality. He died the following year in a cold, dark Vienna garret, but not before completing one last masterpiece.
On 2 October 1828, just seven weeks before he died, Schubert wrote to his publisher saying “…I have knocked up a quintet for 2 violins, 1 viola and 2 violoncellos… the quintet will be tried out for the first time within the next few days. If any of these compositions would appeal to you, let me know.” No one knows if Schubert heard the Quintet performed and it was only played for the first time in Vienna in 1850. All modern editions derive from parts published in 1853 by Diabelli & Co. and the manuscript was destroyed or lost around that time.
The String Quintet in C major was Schubert’s last completed work. In mid-October 1828 his appetite disappeared. Weakened by tertiary syphilis and the toxic, mercury-based medication he was taking, Schubert took to his bed with a high, persistent fever, almost certainly caused by a bacterial typhoid infection. He died at three o’clock in the afternoon of 19 November 1828 and was buried next to Beethoven. On his original tomb are engraved words by the Austrian writer Franz Grillparzer, “The art of music here entombed a rich possession, but far fairer hopes.” In 1888 both Beethoven’s and Schubert’s remains were moved to Vienna’s Central Cemetery.
Writing of his friend in 1869, the Austrian dramatist Eduard von Bauernfeld noted, “There were times when a black-winged demon of sorrow and melancholy forced its way into his vicinity…”, a mood that can be clearly heard in the Adagio of the Quintet and in the slow movement of his last piano sonata in B flat major.
The Quintet employs two cellos in addition to the customary string quartet. Most other string quintets follow the example of Mozart and call for a a second viola. Schubert, like composer and cellist Luigi Boccherini before him, replaced the second viola with a second cello for enhanced richness in the lower register. The Quintet has four movements that verge on sublimity and worldly abandon. Its Adagio explores a realm of the deepest calm and resignation interrupted by a traumatic middle section that suggest lunacy before fading into a cloud of musical unknowing.
Writing in The Life of Schubert (2000), Christopher H. Gibbs commented, “The Quintet exhibits the ultimate refinement of much that is valued in Schubert – the melting lyricism, unexpected modulations, shifts to unexpected places, eclectic mixture of moods, and the calm beauty of a slow movement that is interrupted by terrifying anguish.”
There are many fine recordings of Schubert’s Quintet. It is customary to name the extra cellist when citing them: Hagen Quartet (Heinrich Schiff); Hollywood Quartet (Kurt Reher); Tokyo String Quartet (David Watkin); Smetana Quartet (Milos Sadlo); Takacs Quartet (Ralph Kirshbaum); Alban Berg Quartet (Heinrich Schiff); Fitzwilliam String Quartet (Christopher van Kampen). Those in the know greatly admire the recording made by the Alban Berg Quartet (1999) as well as one now more than sixty years old:
According to the Penguin Guide (2011): “The Hollywood Quartet’s 1951 version… stands apart from all others. Over half a century on, its qualities of freshness and poetry, as well as an impeccably confident address, still impress as deeply as ever…This disc is the product of consummate artistry and remains very special indeed.”