This one is so good that it could justify the title. Schubert’s String Quintet in C Maj was written during the last two months of his achingly short life. The composer died in 1828. Schubert’s once in a millenium genius was not widely recognized until well after his death. The quintet was not performed until 1850 and not published for another three years. It gradually assumed its place at the pinnacle of chamber music. Today the quintet is often ranked as the best piece of chamber music ever written.
The quintet uses a string quartet with the fifth instrument being a second cello rather than the customary extra viola. It is in four movements as shown below. A typical performance takes about 50 minutes.
- Allegro ma non troppo
- Scherzo. Presto – Trio. Andante sostenuto
The work is so grand that the only other chamber music that could be ranked with it are by two composers. One is Schubert himself, the other is Beethoven. No one else comes close to the depth of feeling and inspiration that Schubert’s near death composition achieves. Benjamin Britten said that the last 18 months of Schubert’s life comprised the greatest period of sustained productivity in the history of music. Among the masterpieces that emanated from the young Viennese composer like light through a magnifying glass during the final months of his life, this one is particularly notable. That so much great music could come from this little man in only 31 years of life,16 of which comprised his compositional career, has no rational explanation. Schubert is simply a miracle.
The adagio makes sublime seem inadequate. It is in three parts – ABA. The first section is both tranquil and a dart to the heart. The second section is intensely turbulent. The transition from E major to the distant key of F Minor adds to the sense of agitation that characterizes this middle part. The conclusion of the movement is a return to E major.
The work’s stature among musicians is so high that the violinist Joseph Saunders had the second theme of the first movement carved on his tombstone. Arthur Rubinstein’s wanted to have the second movement played at his funeral. Words cannot come close to transmitting the glory of the second movement. Schubert needs to speak for himself. The second movement is linked below. The Emerson Quartet is joined by Mstislav Rostropovich.