The Ultimate Desert Island Disc

For the Professor:

The BBC Radio show Desert Island Discs provides a unique insight into the many composers, musicians, and other artists and illuminati who have featured as guests over its 75+ year run. In anticipation of its 75th Anniversary, the BBC crunched the numbers to find the most popular selections. In the end, six works towered above all others. Beethoven was naturally well-represented. Both his Ninth and Sixth Symphonies made the Top 6, as did his Emperor Concerto. Not surprisingly for a British show, Elgar also made the list (for Hope and Glory) as did Rachmaninoff (for his second piano concerto) for reasons I don’t quite understand. What do all of these have in common? They are all big, celebratory works written for large orchestras.

There was one work, however, that was not written for orchestra amongst the Top 6. Indeed, for much of the show’s history, it had been the #1 most requested work (mostly for its remarkable Andante second movement): Schubert’s Quintet in C. Unlike most quintets, which add a piano to the usual two violins, viola and cello, Schubert’s quintet adds a second cello, hence the dedication to our resident cellist, the Professor.

Schubert composed the Quintet in C during the final weeks of his life in 1828.  It was to be his last instrumental work and he died prior to it being performed. Indeed, the score was lost for decades, until it was found in a cupboard in the 1850s, published, and performed.

Schubert’s decision to bookend the standard two violins and viola with two cellos seems unprecedented.  The only works I am aware of with this unusual grouping are Luigi Boccherini’s–but that was because his patron was a cellist and the second cello part is little more than a basic bass line. Not so here–Schubert’s score is richly virtuosic in all parts. I suggest Schubert did this to add a darker color to the sound of the ensemble—string quartets skew higher in pitch than an orchestra, with its full complement of cellos and basses.  The Quintet sounds richer, fuller and more dramatic than the chamber pieces that preceded it—it is decidedly symphonic in sound and color, allowing Schubert to explore interesting harmonics with a second bass line. 

The first movement is written is classic sonata form (an exposition of two themes, development, recapitulation and coda). It opens with a classic Schubertian melodic line, which continues to unspool over the first minute or so. The melody moves between the first violin and first cello, just as the key shifts between major and minor. The two basic phrases that comprise the melody are separated by what can be called a fanfare–the “da dum” chords. As the violins shift into harmonic exploration, the cellos take over the melody. Arpeggios essentially push the music onward, not unlike Beethoven, but the presence of Schubert’s long melodic lines mark this work as very much his own.

The second theme emerges in G Major, the expected key for the second theme of a C Major sonata form movement. And this is where the two cellos emerge, playing a melodic line that is equal parts fragile and tragic. The theme revolves around the B in the first cello part (the third tone in the G Major scale) but pay attention to the harmony in the second cello. Minor tones are creeping into the score. The two violins take over the theme, bringing their brighter timbre to what is increasingly a sorrowful mood.

Schubert isn’t really concerned with the development of themes, because the contrast that his melodies provide are the necessary harmonic development he needs for his music to succeed. So instead of launching into the development, he adds a coda, a dance-like rhythm, before bringing back the second theme before launching into a very short development section. To be fair, this is far from the most interesting development section–it is largely comprised of a minor version of the coda in the cellos contrasted against the fanfare element in the violins. From this, a new theme is introduced (breaking the rules of classical composition), which contains elements of the second theme. The development section underscores duality of the scoring, rarely are two violins or two cellos left on their own.

The recapitulation is brought about through a series of arpeggios ending in G Major. The movement ends peacefully, but not unlike the creeping shadows of an autumn afternoon, suggest that darker times are ahead.

The enduring popularity of the Quintet in C lies in the serene and sublime second movement in E Major. This is peak Schubert, taking the opening chord from the first movement and unleashes a seamless melody of about five minutes. There is something deeply celestial about this music. The dreamlike state is interrupted by a trill–a shock to the system–which leads into a section of music that could not be more different from what came previously. This is the music of despair, aggitated and anxious, scored in F Minor. Schubert unfurls this heart-wrenching score–supported by those two cellos–until it literally melts away into extended silences, interrupted by chords reminiscent of the first movement’s fanfare element. After an age, a prayer of such fragility that it seems unsustainable. Is this Schubert’s prayer and, if so, what is he praying for? Musicologists have struggled to answer that question without reaching a satisfying conclusion. The agitated music returns in the first violin, but quickly disappears as the movement ends, back in E Major, but seemingly unresolved.

Schubert’s melodic gifts are on full display in the last two movements, a Scherzo and Rondo, respectively. The Scherzo, underscoring its roots in the minuet, is a folksy dance that lightens the mood considerably. The timbre of the quintet as a whole changes as the noise produced by the five musicians appears to increase exponentially. There are two reasons for this. First, Schubert provides many opportunities to play open strings, which, relieved of any pressure from the fingers, sing out with more intense overtones, giving the impression of additional instruments. And the instruments are asked to play more than one note at a time, compounding the effect. Resolving the dance, Schubert’s trio brings back the quasi-religious overtones from the second movement. This prayer, if anything, is even darker and more foreboding. But these phrases are increasingly fragmented, frustrated by the lack of resolution. Schubert’s prayers are not being answered. It is as if someone attending a wild party has been overcome by dark thoughts. The music descends downward, in tone and dynamics. It is, in a word, dying. Schubert’s imminent death is hard to ignore here–was he scoring his dread? The rollicking dance theme returns and Schubert’s repeat of the Scherzo ends on a joyous note.

The final movement is more of the same. This vaguely Eastern European music reflects the then-current vogue for Hungarian folk music, one persistent strand of the coming Romantic movement. This dance is never far away, even as the music turns inward, either reflecting the second movement’s prayer or the second theme from the first movement. But ultimately, the dance just won’t relent. To the contrary, Schubert increases the tempo. The end in sight, the dance becomes delirious and perhaps a bit out of control. A series of chords bring the quartet to its final conclusion.

And it is that final half-stepped chord at the death that has produced so much debate. It is a D-flat to C, bringing the quintet back to its home key. But it is fundamentally unsettling. Is it a moment of doubt? A premonition of his death? There are no clear answers here. But I’ve never come away from listening to this work particularly uplifted. Moved, shaken, disturbed–yes. But great art doesn’t always bring resolution. Indeed, in the coming century, art would move away from providing answers and assurances to simply asking more questions. In that, the Quintet in C is truly proto-Romantic.

Franz Schubert, Quintet in C, D. 956:

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