By Gordon Kerry
The year 1828 began well for Schubert. In January, at one of those private soirées known as ‘Schubertiades’, he presented several new works for piano duet and one of the two great Piano Trios. He composed the Fantasia in F minor, D. 940, for piano duet, and the publisher Probst issued the Piano Trio in E flat, D. 929. On 26 March, he commemorated the anniversary of Beethoven’s death with the only public concert devoted to his own work during his lifetime, attracting a full house.
As the year progressed, he composed several more piano duets and several liturgical pieces such as the Mass in E flat, D. 950, and a setting of Psalm 92. His health declined, but his creativity was, to say the very least, undimmed. He completed the set of songs now known as the Schwanengesang (‘swan song’), then the three last piano sonatas and began work on the Quintet, which he finished in October in time to write The Shepherd on the Rock and make substantial sketches for three movements of a new symphony.
That work-load would exhaust a perfectly healthy composer, let alone one in the late stages of an incurable disease; and it is especially remarkable that those pieces are not only masterful, but are all examples of Schubert’s seemingly effortless ability to create musical structures of vast scale. And for all that many of these works are often achingly tragic, there is much that is celebratory. The eponymous shepherd on his rock, for instance, reaches the depths of despair only to be cheered by the sudden arrival of spring; the Quintet explores an amazing variety of emotional landscapes.
We don’t know why Schubert wrote the Quintet, a genre that by definition threatens to disrupt the poise and equilibrium of the traditional quartet, with its ‘four intelligent people having a conversation’, as Goethe put it. Musicologist Peter Gülke has argued that the composer chose the extra cello, rather than viola, because ‘Schubert the lyricist sings most freely in the tenor; at any rate, he constantly begins in the tenor. Therein lies [an] obvious reason for the enlargement of the quartet to a quintet – the establishment of the tenor register as the fount of musical invention.’
We have to be wary of ascribing biographical meaning to works of absolute music, but it is hard not hear something of the composer’s personal voice in this work, and see it as a piece that makes a heroic stand against tragedy and extinction.
British composer David Bruce has made a similar point when discussing his clarinet quintet Gumboots, noting that ‘life-enriching art has been produced, even inspired by conditions of tragedy, brutality and oppression, a famous example being Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time’. Gumboots, too, grows out of appalling conditions, those of the brutally exploited workers in the diamond mines of apartheid-era South Africa; the miners’ response to their conditions was to create defiantly vibrant music and dance using the very instruments of their oppression – chains and gumboots. Bruce celebrates this energetic spirit in the second half of his piece, while the first part offers space for reflection.
While he would die young, a mere two years after his String Quintet No.2, Mendelssohn, unlike Schubert, was hugely successful in his own time. Popular across Europe, he was esteemed by royalty in various German kingdoms and in Britain, sought after as a composer and conductor, blessed in early life with a family who offered high levels of material and moral support. On the fact of it the most conservative of the ‘Romantic Generation’ born around 1810, Mendelssohn was in part responsible for the revival of Baroque music, notably Bach’s choral work. Perhaps more than any of his age cohort he understood how to fuse new ‘romantic’ notions of musical sound and expression with the structural and formal principles of Viennese classicism and the Baroque. In that sense, he was one of the earliest 19th century composers to understand and assimilate the lessons of the last works of Beethoven and those of Schubert. Much of the energy of his String Quintet No.2, like Schubert’s, comes from the shifting alliances within the somewhat unstable group of five players.