The Music Plays On — Schubert Piano Quintet in A major, D.667 “Trout”

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I went out this afternoon for a substantial walk for the first time in close to 80 days. For my journey, I chose to listen to Schubert’s Trout Quintet. It was either the most appropriate piece to listen to, or the least appropriate, depending on one’s point of view. Watching people avoid each other as if everyone was wearing a scarlet letter, juxtaposed with the spring blossoms, juxtaposed with the bittersweet music of Schubert, was almost too much for me to bear.

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1821 drawing of Franz Schubert
by Joseph Kupelwieser

Schubert composed this extraordinary piece for piano, violin, viola, cello, and double bass when he was 22 years old, in 1819. However, it wasn’t published until after his death in 1829. Schubert wrote it for this unique set of instruments because it matched a rearrangement of the composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s Septet and this group of musicians needed another piece to play. Hummel’s Piano Quintet in D minor is an excellent work and I highly recommend listening to it in comparison with the Schubert. Hummel would write another piano quintet with the same instruments, his Piano Quintet Op. 87, and it is also fantastic!

Schubert’s quintet is nicknamed the Trout because the fourth movement is a lovely set of variations on a song that Schubert wrote in 1817 called, Die Forelle (The Trout). It’s a lovely song that captures the mercurial fish, especially in the rippling piano part.

Die Forelle by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart

In einem Bächlein helle,

Da schoß in froher Eil

Die launische Forelle

Vorüber wie ein Pfeil.

Ich stand an dem Gestade

Und sah in süßer Ruh

Des muntern Fischleins Bade

Im klaren Bächlein zu.

Ein Fischer mit der Rute

Wohl an dem Ufer stand,

Und sah’s mit kaltem Blute,

Wie sich das Fischlein wand.

So lang dem Wasser Helle,

So dacht ich, nicht gebricht,

So fängt er die Forelle

Mit seiner Angel nicht.

Doch endlich ward dem Diebe

Die Zeit zu lang. Er macht

Das Bächlein tückisch trübe,

Und eh ich es gedacht,

So zuckte seine Rute,

Das Fischlein zappelt dran,

Und ich mit regem Blute

Sah die Betrogene an.

English Translation

In a bright little brook

there shot in merry haste

a capricious trout:

past it shot like an arrow.

I stood upon the bank

and watched in sweet peace

the cheery fish’s bath

in the clear little brook.

A fisherman with his rod

stood at the water-side,

and watched with cold blood

as the fish swam about.

So long as the clearness of the water

remained intact, I thought,

he would not be able to catch the trout

with his fishing rod.

But finally the thief grew weary

of waiting. He stirred up

the brook and made it muddy,

and before I guessed it,

his fishing rod was twitching:

the fish was squirming there,

and with raging blood I

gazed at the betrayed fish.

A very wonderful film made by Christopher Nupen in 1970 called, The Trout, is really such a sweet document of incredible talents who, while they were all still in their twenties, were already known throughout the world.

Here are my favorite recordings.

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