Franz Schubert: Octet in F Major
Commissioned by Ferdinand Troyer in 1824, Franz Schubert’s Octet in F Major is the largest set up of any chamber works written by the composer. Scored for clarinet, bassoon, horn, two violins, viola, cello and double bass, the instrumentation shadows that of Beethoven’s famous Septet (with the addition of a second violin in Schubert’s work). Beethoven’s Septet is significant because when Troyer commissioned Schubert for this work, he specified he wanted a similar work to that of Beethoven’s. The Octet was premiered at Archduke Rudolf’s private house, with many of Beethoven’s Septet players performing in the ensemble.
Octet in F Major takes just shy of an hour to perform, due to the fact that Schubert went all out and composed six big movements for the work. Themes are spread across movements, with Schubert also using harmony to link the movements together.
Movement I – Adagio – Allegro – Più allegro
The main theme of the opening movement is taken from Schubert’s song, Der Wanderer. After a slow introduction marked ‘Adagio’, the broad themes begin to unravel and flourish into a quicker ‘Allegro’ section. Schubert uses the upper winds and strings together as they entangle in melodies and rich harmonies. The unison writing quickly brings the ensemble together to create powerful musical statements, before the more intricate writing overtakes the texture. The bold use of dynamics creates an exciting first movement that aptly sets the scene for what is to come.
Movement II – Adagio
The slow second movement starts with a fluctuating string theme accompanying the clarinet. As the melody grows, the woody clarinet sound meshes beautifully with the low-range strings. This opening theme lays the foundation for the movement, as the violins take over the theme whilst the lower strings, horn and bassoon support harmonically from underneath. The clarinet is the main part throughout this movement, however, as the theme creeps back every so often to keep the movement grounded. Schubert’s rich textures and nuanced harmonic language creates a spine-tingling movement of music.
Movement III – Allegro vivace – Trio – Allegro vivace
The speedy third movement is initially led by the lower strings, before the rest of the ensemble answer the call. The intricate call and response at the start is a theme that runs through the veins of this movement. The shortest movement so far, the peppy character of the third movement differs very much from what has come before. The bouncy melody is played by all of the ensemble at some point in the movement. The balanced trio is short and much quieter than the bombastic opening. As the the theme returns it is repeated a number of times in different ways before the movement concludes with the ensemble in brilliant unison.
Movement IV – Andante Variations
The main theme that forms the basis of the fourth movement are from Schubert’s Singspiel Die Freunde von Salamanka. The theme and variations set up starts with the viola, who is accompanied by the light lower strings. The violin and clarinet, in unison, then play the theme. The movement is rich with thematic content and the variations that Schubert creates are well designed and ooze class and sophistication. Each theme features a different instrument of the ensemble, which shows the virtuosic nature of Schubert’s pen. This movement concludes quietly.
Movement V – Menuetto
The stately fifth movement is based around a minuet and trio structure. Led by the violins to begin with, the theme is passed around the strings for development. The woodwind take a more decorative and textural approach to this movement. Schubert once more uses unison writing to create an effect that brings together sounds to emphasise important melodies. More call and response figures take over the central section of the movement, as Schubert explores melodic development. The movement ends on the home key in unison.
Movement VI – Andante molto – Allegro
The tumultuous start to the finale movement is driven by the cello and double bass. A dark and sinister rumble from these instruments creates tension when the rest of the ensemble play unison chords. Over 2.5 minutes this tension builds before the extravagant ‘Allegro’ section begins. Full of life, this theme is proudly presented first by the violin, before the clarinet takes the lead. The joyfulness of this section completely goes against the moody opening, which shows diversity and creativity from Schubert. After some exciting twists and turns, the finale concludes with a reprise of the opening quick melody before the ensemble set up for the absolutely thrilling finale.
Ⓒ Alex Burns