Amateur clarinettist Count Ferdinand von Troyer would likely have been well pleased with the opportunities to flaunt his talent in this piece. The Octet, which was premiered by von Troyer and friends in a private performance in 1824, was everything he had ordered and more.
Requested as a companion piece to Beethoven’s immensely popular Septet, Schubert’s work is closely modeled on its Beethoven forebear: it is written in six movements with a slow introduction for each outer movement; the harmonic relationship between each movement is identical, and the work contains both an Adagio movement (unusual for Schubert) and an Andante theme and variations. Yet despite the structural similarities, Schubert’s work is much more than mere imitation. His unique style, with its long melodic lines and emotional clarity, is expressed here in this joyful music with a hint of the poignant.
The Octet begins with a slow introduction in which the clarinet’s extended melody prepares the ear for the movement’s main theme. In the second movement the clarinet, along with the strings, plays a major part in unfolding a gentle and lovely melody. The third movement begins with an exuberant scherzo, from which the trio provides a brief respite.
A love duet written by Schubert at age 18 forms the basis for a set of variations in the fourth movement, while the fifth movement is structurally similar to the third, written as a minuet and trio. The presence in this work of both the Classical minuet and trio, and the Romantic scherzo and trio, points to Schubert’s position on the bridge between two eras. This dichotomy can also be heard in the final movement where the slightly somber material of the slow introduction is balanced against the joyful energy of the work’s conclusion.