Programme note to follow.
Franz Peter Schubert 1797-1828
Octet in F major, D803 (1824)
Like Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, Schubert’s Octet for wind and strings is music with undercurrents. On the surface the most delicious of divertimentos, it is always on the point of transforming itself into something more disturbing. Contrasts between sweetness and bitterness, contentment and neurosis, fury and despair were Schubertian traits with which those later Viennese composers, Hugo Wolf and Gustav Mahler, would later identify.
Composed as a companion-piece for Beethoven’s popular Septet for the same instruments minus one violin, the Schubert octet dates from a period of illness and depression in his life. “Each night when I go to sleep,” he informed a friend, “I hope I will not wake again and each morning reminds me only of yesterday’s unhappiness”. With Count Troyer, the clarinettist who commissioned the work, alongside Ignaz Schuppanzigh, leader of the great Razumovsky Quartet, in the first performance, the octet was clearly not intended as a piece of Schubertian ‘house music’ but was designed to be played by some of the leading Viennese musicians of the day.
Mood swings, however, pervade what one authority has misleadingly described as its ‘unalloyed delight’. The slow, groping introduction to the first movement, with its stark dotted rhythms, seems to emerge from nowhere, though the same material grows more genial in the ensuing allegro. The slow second movement, a sort of rhapsody for clarinet, opens lyrically but is shattered towards its close by one of those dark Schubertian intimations of mortality which increasingly thrust their way into his music, in this case by way of an unsettling change of key and a sudden stoppage of the ethereal melody in mid-air. The stabbing pizzicato note from cello and bass at this point tells its own story. The clarinet thereafter tries to regain stability but the calm of the opening has been irretrievably lost.
The succeeding scherzo, with its bouncing main theme, reassuringly restores equilibrium. The fourth movement, ostensibly light-hearted, is a set of seven variations, again disturbed towards the end by a change of key and an edge of melancholy intensity. Nor does the succeeding minuet, for all its simplicity, wholly banish the mood. On the surface, everything is dreamily Viennese but the long coda, begun by the horn, is at best ambiguous. The sense of mystery is maintained in the slow introduction to the finale, with its tense tremolandi and lurches between loud and soft tone. The main body of the movement is more jovial, but near the end the tremolandi return like spectres at a feast before being thrust aside by the whizzing coda.
© Conrad Wilson
Schubert composed his Octet after a year spent writing opera and striving to have it staged. His ears were full of the music of Carl Maria von Weber (the most successful German operatic composer of the day) and it shows in every movement of the Octet. What better to pair it with than Liszt’s spectacular and virtuoso fantasies and transcriptions of operatic hits?