Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Fishing for Trout along the Yellow Breeches

Chamber music is something I've often described as “music played by friends for friends.” Schubert's Trout Quintet which pianist Stuart Malina, members of the Fry Street Quartet and bassist Donovan Stokes will perform at 4pm this Sunday afternoon at the Glen Allen Mill - part of Market Square Concerts' Summer Music 2009 - was also a work written for friends.

It was also written following a delightful summer vacation in an old Austrian city located between two idyllic rivers in eastern Austria. What the trout fishing may have been like there, I don't know, but it seems the ideal piece of music to hear along the Yellow Breeches in an old mill that dates more closely to the time Schubert wrote this idyllic and happy music.

In 1815, Schubert, then 18, met the singer Johann Michael Vogl, a baritone who sang major roles at one of Vienna's major opera houses: the year before, he had created the role of the villain Pizzaro in Beethoven's latest revision of Fidelio. Reluctantly agreeing to meet the young composer, he sang through of a pile of songs, his reactions going from “not bad” to “you have something special in you, but as yet you are too little of the actor and showman; you have fine ideas but should make more of them.”

Vogl was a tall and imposing man. Schubert was about 5'1”. One of Schubert's friends drew a wicked caricature of the two, reflecting Vogl's stature in the arts community and Schubert's relative insignificance.

In those days, singers didn't give “song recitals.” Composers – even Mozart and Beethoven – wrote songs primarily for the domestic market, meaning amateurs to perform at home, back in the days before the invention of stereos, radios and TVs when people made their own entertainment rather than watched or listened to it. If you read any novels of the time – like Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, written in 1813 – there will likely be references to the young unmarried daughters of the house who would play the piano and sing for their friends and family: a girl's talent was considered a marriageable trait. These, then, were the performers Schubert's contemporaries had in mind except Schubert often wrote songs setting “deeper” poems with more difficult piano accompaniments and requiring more vocal technique. Vogl appreciated this and took Schubert and his songs around to his friends and sang this music for them. Without being published, Schubert would build a reputation as a composer of songs. It was, however, not a very good kind of reputation: opera was “where it was at.”

And that's probably why Schubert's friends arranged for Herr Vogl to meet their young friend. Money was to be made not in writing songs for pretty daughters to warble after dinner but in getting operas performed. That was the mark of a professional composer. In 1820, Vogl would sing the parts of twin brothers in Schubert's opera Die Zwillingsbrüder, written just for him. One of the few operas Schubert would complete or even see on the stage, it was a failure. One of music's great mysteries is that Schubert, an expert dramatist in the miniatures he wrote – Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel, for instance, written when he was 16 – seemed incapable of finding the dramatic moment in extended scenes on the operatic stage.

Perhaps Schubert's most popular song is Die Forelle, “The Trout.” He wrote this during the spring of 1817. There's a famous story that, in the midst of drinking a good deal of wine on a Saturday night, Schubert sat down and (while everybody else was talking) wrote Die Forelle. The manuscript certainly looks like it, but the truth is, he was visiting a friend whose younger brother very much liked Schubert's songs, and so Schubert sat down and from memory wrote out a copy of this one for him – it was the third time he'd copied out this song, but keep in mind it was also in the days before there were photocopiers.
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"Die Forelle" (The Trout) with tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Julius Drake:

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In 1819, Vogl was going on an extended vacation to his hometown of Steyr, an industrial town about 2/3s of the way between Vienna and Salzburg (it would celebrate its 1,000th Anniversary in 1980) and he decided to take his young friend Schubert with him.

Schubert stayed at the home of a “cultured lawyer” who had three sons and eight daughters and whose nephew, Anton Stadler, an old school friend of Schubert's, also lived there. He would meet Vogl for meals at the home of Josef Koller, an iron merchant whose daughter was a talented pianist named Josephine. It was there Schubert, Vogl, Josephine and Stadler performed Der Erlkönig as a trio (Schubert sang the part of the father). That month, Schubert also wrote a piano sonata just for Josephine – the Sonata in A Major, K.664.

Another piece of music associated with that vacation was a little cantata written for Vogl's 51st birthday – Schubert was again one of the singers – and performed at the Kollers' house.

More public music making took place at the home of a wealthy mining official, Sylvester Paumgartner, a bachelor who was a local patron of the arts and an amateur wind player and cellist. The best musicales in Steyr took place either in the music room or the larger 2nd floor salon of his home on the city's town square (see photo). Vogl, sort of a local hero having gone off to a great career in the Big City, was the center of attention and being a bit of a prima donna would not always feel like singing: on occasion Paumgartner had to get down on his knees and beg him to sing. Schubert was very much in the “back seat,” sitting at the piano, but still, people admired his songs, though they more openly enjoyed Vogl's singing of them. One of the favorites was Die Forelle.

Paumgartner owned a copy of Johann Nepomuck Hummel's Septet in an arrangement for the unusual combination of piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass (the first 'real' piano quintet, consisting of the now standard string quartet plus piano, wasn't written until Schumann wrote his in 1842). In order to have something else for this group to play, he asked Schubert to write a little something for him and, if he would, include a set of variations on the song Die Forelle as one of the movements. And so that's how Schubert came to write this Quintet in A Major for Piano & Strings - which has always been known as “The Trout Quintet.”

Since the original manuscript is lost and no one (not even his school friend Stadler) ever mentioned the performance in a letter or subsequent memoirs, it's hard to say when it was written or premiered. The going story is that he wrote it then and there and in a matter of days everybody played it and loved it.

Unfortunately, that's not true. There were two other visits to Steyr – 1823 and 1825 – but because of the style of the piece compared to its contemporaries, it's more likely it was written after this first visit when Schubert was 22.

What actually happened was that the request was made before Vogl and Schubert left, the piece was composed that autumn in Vienna, Stadler copied the parts and sent them back to Paumgartner. Unfortunately, Schubert overestimated Paumgartner's abilities as a cellist: apparently, the work was played through (perhaps not even performed), then put away on the shelf. It wasn't published until 1829, a year after Schubert died at the age of 31. Today, it is probably one of the most popular pieces in the chamber music repertoire.

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Here are the last three movements of the Trout Quintet recorded by five friends in 1969 - Daniel Barenboim (piano), Itzhak Perlman (violin), Pinchas Zukerman (viola), Jacqueline du Pre (cello) and Zubin Mehta (double bass):
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Variations on the song, Die Forelle (The Trout)

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- Dr. Dick


  1. when was the day of premiere for the trout piano quintet?

  2. Dear Anon - No one knows for sure: see two paragraphs above the first of the Trout video-clips for an explanation. It's possible it was read through at Paumgartner's in the Fall or early Winter of 1819 (or at least that season) but there's no record of it or of a subsequent performance, much less a date. I can't find any indication of an actual 'premiere' relating to its being published in 1829.

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