String quintets date back as early as 1607, when the quintet was employed in Claudio Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo. Fast-forward over 200 years later, and you will find the works of Franz Schubert that were written for string quintet, one example being his String Quintet in C Major for Strings, D. 956. Franz Schubert lived from 1797 to 1828. The String Quintet, which is Schubert’s final chamberwork and his only full-fledged string quintet, was written in 1828 two months before he died when Schubert was 31 years old.
Amazingly, when Schubert offered his work to one of the publishers, he was uninterested, causing Schubert to have a private rehearsal of the piece just one month before his death. Amazingly, the piece was not heard in public until 1850, an entire twenty-two years after he died. It then was finally published in 1853. Typically, a string quartet would be comprised of two violins, one viola, and two cellos. When deciding on the instrumentation for their quintets, both Mozart and Beethoven chose to keep a normal string quintet instrumentation, and simply added a second viola.
Schubert, however, did not decide to take this route. He decided instead upon adding a second cello, which gives his Quintet a slightly different sound resulting in bit of a darker and more grave sounding ensemble. Schubert had great admiration for Mozart and Beethoven, so it has been suggested that Schubert selected the key of C major for his only string quintet because both Mozart and Beethoven composed string quintets in that key. It has also been noted that the opening theme of Schubert’s quintet contains quite a few elements that Mozart’s String Quintet No. 3 in C major, K. 515 contained.
These similarities include irregular phrase lengths, decorative turns, and rising staccato arpeggios although the staccato arpeggios occurred in Schubert’s recapitulation, not his opening theme. The Quintet contains four movements in the typical fast-slow-scherzo-fast pattern, and takes nearly an hour to perform from start to finish. Schubert was sure to choose the voicings for each movement carefully, pairing them in such a way that the sound of the ensemble is different in every one. Each movement sounds completely fresh and new, and unlike the previous or following movements.
The first movement, Allegro ma non troppo, makes up nearly one-third of the duration of the piece. The exposition begins on a C major chord, and mostly has the harmonies being presented, rather than a melody, and without a conventional sense of some kind of rhythm. The exposition contains 154 measures. Proceeding the exposition is music that has more and more motion and tension as the movements continues until the start of the second subject, which is very much different from the first. The key for this subject is E-flat, which is rather unanticipated. What follows is a duet between the two cellos.
The conclusion of the exposition is G major chord, the dominant in the key of C major, allowing the movement to go back to the tonic chord on the repeat of the exposition. After this repeat, the development starts by modulating from the dominant to the submediant, allowing the music to move from G major to A major. The second movement, Adagio, is in three-part ABA (ternary) form. The outer areas are in E major and have a very tranquil and ethereal feel to them, and the music in between is rough and intense before suddenly falling into tranquility in F minor.
The opening music comes back with the second cello playing a 32nd note running passage, seemingly getting its fuel from the agitation in the music played previously. Right at the last minute in the final three measures of the movement, Schubert connects it all by modulating back to the F minor from the middle of section, and then goes right back to E major. The third movement, Scherzo, is in C major. The movement takes advantage of the open and uncompressed strings of the lower instruments, allowing the sound to have a volume larger than that which is normally expected from five stringed instruments.
The trio of this movement is in the key of D-flat major, which is an odd key considering the movement began in C major. This middle section is a very slow march. The fourth and final movement, Allegretto, is a lively sonata-rondo that is similar in form to the finale of Mozart’s C major quintet, the same work that this piece already bears some similarities to. The movement is in C major, but it does switch between major and minor modes. The very end is unconventional; the last two notes of the piece are odd, and they are D-flat and C played by every part at forte.