"Trout" Quintet - An Introduction
Schubert's tuneful and good-natured "Trout" Quintet – based on one of the composer's most successful songs – is a classic of the chamber music repertoire. Robert Thicknesse dips a toe into this most attractive of works.
Why the name?
Certainly the best-known piece of music to be named after a fish, the Quintet's popular title comes from one of Schuberts most loved songs, 'The Trout' (Die Forelle), which forms the theme of the quintet’s fourth movement. Schubert had written the song a couple of years earlier and it had already become vastly popular, even hackneyed, by the time he worked it into his Piano quintet in A major (the work's proper name) in 1819.
Despite the song’s light touch, it is based on rather a tragic poem. A man stands watching a young trout gambolling happily in the stream, but sees it caught by a cunning fisherman who has muddied up the clear waters so the trout cannot see the looming danger. The poet’s blood boils with rage, betrayal and helpless pity, and he draws the moral (not set by Schubert) that girls need to keep their wits about them.
Need to Know.
The 22-year-old Schubert was staying with the singer Johann Michael Vogl (for whom many of his songs were written) in the summer of 1819 when Sylvester Paumgartner, local mine-owner and music enthusiast, commissioned a quintet. He wanted it to include variations on 'Die Forelle', as well as a piece for an oddly-configured quintet made up by him and his friends.
The instrumental line-up is not the usual string quartet plus piano – instead, it's one each of violin, viola, cello and double bass plus piano. This means that the textures of the piece are more spacious than usual, and that the cello in particular (Paumgartner’s instrument, of course) is freed up for more melodic, fun music than its usual bassline. The structure of the piece, too, is slightly eccentric, with the Variation movement interpolated between the third and final movements.
A-Major is a standard, sunny key and the Trout reflects this, with only a little seasoning of melancholy (perhaps an idle recollection of the poem) to dilute the piece’s relaxed, rural optimism. Sociable, mild without being remotely anodyne, it is lovely piece for friends to play together. One of the most likeable things about it is its sense of freedom and fancy – like a carefree but ruminative walk, with new ideas popping up all the time.
The quintet's movements go through a familiar sequence, each featuring versions of the burbling sextuplet motif that forms the original song’s accompaniment ('diddle-di diddle-di da da...'). A tender and relaxed second movement leads into the vivacious Scherzo with a dancing second theme, and the beautifully-developing Variations (listen for the strings jaunting about as the piano takes up the theme) brings us to the Finale, with a vaguely peasanty dance rhythm.
A rather melancholy afterthought: as far as we know, the piece was never played again in Schubert’s lifetime after its first performance by Paumgartner and friends.
Can I play it?
Well, Paumgartner and his friends could, so yes, you can! As with much of Schubert’s music, The Trout Quintet is not immensely difficult to play – so have fun yourself at the same time as enjoying professional musicians' performances!