The Trout Quintet

During his 31 years on Earth, Franz Schubert wrote more than 600 songs, 300 in just three years between 1815-1817. He was a superb tunesmith of epic proportions. Not wanting to waste time on mundane matters, he often went to bed with his glasses on so he could immediately begin to compose when he woke up. Almost every evening he gathered with friends to sing, to play music, and to enjoy each other’s company. To him, music was more a labor of love than a commercial venture. Many of his works were not discovered or published until after his death, including his eight symphonies which he never heard performed.

Die Forelle, or The Trout, is one of Schubert’s best-loved songs. It’s the tale of a fisherman stalking and hooking an innocent defenseless trout as told by an anguished onlooker. Two years later, while on a relaxing summer vacation, Schubert met a wealthy amateur cellist and music lover, Sylvester Paumgartner, whose favorite Schubert song was The Trout. Paumgartner commissioned Schubert to write an unusual quintet for violin, viola, cello, double bass, and piano, with the stipulation that the new work must incorporate The Trout’s catchy melody.

This piece has always been popular. To quote Jonathan Blumhofer, “It’s not hard to see why. Schubert’s writing is ebullient and unfailingly lyrical. The scoring is magnificent. Every player in the ensemble shines, even the bass. Hardly a cloud darkens the music’s pages. The piece is forty minutes of sheer, unbridled joy, and great tunes. What’s not to love?”

The Trout’s melody shows up as a theme and masterly variations in the fourth of five movements. You won’t miss the piano’s bubbling arpeggios which depict the fish’s pristine brook.

Schubert wrote this work in 1819, not for the concert hall, but for amateur musicians who wanted music to play at home. Some amateurs! It was not published until nine years later, after his untimely death. In a posthumous advertisement for it, the publisher said, “We deem it our duty to draw the musical public’s attention to this latest work by the unforgettable composer.”

After his death, admirers erected a monument to Schubert which reads, “Music has here entombed a rich treasure, but much fairer hopes. Here lies Franz Schubert.” But he lives on in his timeless music.

Written by the Honorable Stephen S. Trott