In the summer of 1819, when Schubert was struggling for recognition as an opera composer, he went on a summer holiday with the baritone Johann Vogl to the latter’s home town of Steyr in the mountains of Upper Austria. And so at last, Schubert who had so often celebrated the beauty of the mountains and lakes in his songs, was able for the first time to experience them himself. What’s more Schubert found himself at the centre of a circle of admirers thanks to the advocacy of Vogl and a piano was moved into his room so that he could compose.
A local amateur cellist, Sylvester Paumgartner, hosted many of the musical evenings and he commissioned the piano quintet, which was to include a set of variations on the theme of Die Forelle. The five movements alternate quick and slow and their relaxed tempi are closer in spirit to the eighteenth-century divertimento than the big Romantic quintets of Schumann and Brahms. The most novel aspect in the Trout is its ability to wind down the music to the state of a slow contemplative dance, which is what gives the work its magical atmosphere.
However there is also a hidden dark side connected with Die Forelle, the song whose theme is the subject of the set of variations in the fourth movement. The song’s text was written in 1782 by the poet Christian Schubart, who had strong political views, so strong that the authorities exiled him from the Duchy of Würtemberg. However he continued his diatribe against clericalism, absolutism and incompetent rulers from abroad until, in an episode reminiscent of state abuses in our own times, he was lured back across the border, captured, imprisoned and incarcerated for ten years. Die Forelle was written after five years in solitary confinement, the text dictated through a hole in the wall and smuggled out of the castle. The poem then is a coded text about the deceptions our political masters use to silence dissent and Schubert and his friends, living under Metternich’s repressive regime, would have been only too aware of Schubart’s fate and his hidden message.
The opening Allegro is in sonata form complete with exposition repeat, though the clear distribution between first and second subject is blurred, ideas merging into one another with great spontaneity. The development begins dramatically pianissimo with strings alone before building to an animated climax. The recapitulation is a transposed repetition of the exposition with two sections omitted, one of several signs of hasty composition – Schubert was clearly working to a deadline.
The Andante theme is given first in the piano and then the violin. Triplet movement ushers in a new idea and the melody is given to the viola and cello in the key of F sharp minor. A dotted rhythm then appears to dispel any minor key sadness and the first theme is brought gently back, but instead of stopping the minor key section returns and there is a full repeat. The sparkling scherzo has a catchy tune, heavily reinforced in the bass department, while the trio is more delicately scored with the piano part entirely in the treble clef.
Before the Variations movement we can hear the song itself with its delicious tune belying its tale of deception and intrigue. The variations begin with the theme stated in the strings alone, the first variation is given to the piano and the second to the viola below a decorative violin. In the third the cello and the bass play the theme piano almost drowned by the piano’s whirling arpeggios as the angler muddies the waters of freedom. The fourth variation steps up the tempo and the volume as the unfortunate fish fights for his life. The fifth variation gives much prominence to the cello of Herr Paumgartner as the musicians collectively mourn the loss of freedom and life.
The Finale revolves around the opening figure heard first in the viola and violin and echoed at once by the piano. The movement is divided into two halves, where the second apart from changes of key is more or less a repeat of the first.
Francis Humphrys with thanks to Lukas Fierz