Schubert and a fishy tale

The one that didn’t get away.

The “Trout Quintet” is the popular name for the Piano Quintet in A major, D. 667, by Franz Schubert, composed in 1819 when he was 22 years old. The last movement is a set of variations on Schubert’s earlier song Die Forelle (“The Trout”).

The Quintet was written for the combination of piano, violin, viola, cello and unusually double bass. The mining director and amateur cellist Sylvester Paumgartner suggested to Schubert that he compose for the same group of instruments as an earlier quintet by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) – a pupil of Mozart. In his lifetime, Hummel was regarded as one of the great composers of Europe and certainly its greatest pianist. Paumgartner may also have suggested using the by then popular tune from Schubert’s Die Forelle.

The fourth movement of the “Trout Quintet” consists of five variations on a variant of the song’s theme, which Schubert finally quotes together with the famous rippling accompaniment of the song itself. (In 1942, when Benjamin Britten arranged the song for small orchestra, he used clarinets to portray the gurgling of the stream.)

Schubert composed the song Die Forelle in early 1817 for solo voice and piano. The first verse runs:

“In a clear little brook
Flickered in happy haste
The capricious trout
Everywhere like a dart.
I stood on the bank
And saw in sweet peace
The joyful fish swim
In the clear little brook.”

Schubert set the text of a poem by the contentious journalist and composer Christian Schubart, published in 1783 but written before then while he was imprisoned in a fortress having made a bitter attack on the Jesuits. He may also have insulted the mistress of the iron-fisted Duke of Württemberg, a notorious rake who fathered 12 children only one of whom was legitimate.

Schubart’s poem tells the story of a trout being caught in an allegory warning young women to be on their guard against men. The Duke of Württemberg might have recognised himself in the poem or its listeners might have inferred that the duke was being mocked. But, when Schubert came to set the poem to music, he left out the last verse, which may have been too risqué for the times since it rather pointedly advises young girls to be on their guard against young men with rods.

The “Trout Quintet” is one of Schubert’s loveliest and most exuberant compositions, tinged with that sadness that in his works seems always to be lurking below the surface. Schubert, like Mahler, is able to hint at the menace of shadows even while light is bouncing off life’s swift-moving stream. For Schubert, it became an art-form.



Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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