Franz Schubert: Trout Quintet


Composed when he was just 22 years old, Franz Schubert’s Trout Quintet was published in 1829. The piece came by its unique nickname due to the fourth movement being a set of variations on Schubert’s earlier Lied Die Forelle (The Trout). The original title was Piano Quintet in A major, thus the new nickname made this work stand out even more.

The quintet isn’t a usual set up either. Rather than the well-known piano quintet set up of a piano and string quartet, Schubert wrote this work for piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass. The Trout Quintet was composed for wealthy music patron and cellist Sylvester Paumgartner. He was the person who suggested that Schubert compose a work that was based on Die Forelle.

Die Forelle was originally a song to warn young women against being ‘caught’ by ‘angling’ men. Schubert purposefully did not set the final lines of the poem because he wanted to concentrate on the image of a trout in the water being caught by angling fishermen.


The Music

The Trout Quintet consists of five movements:

I. Allegro vivace
II. Andante
III. Scherzo: Presto
IV. Andantino – Allegretto
V. Allegro Giusto

There is a unifying motif that links all the movements together, except the third movement scherzo. The passage is a rising sextuplet that is often introduced by the piano, but soon makes it way around the chamber ensemble.


I. Allegro vivace

The opening movement is set in sonata form, which was common practice for the time of composition. By far the longest of all five movements, this opening movement sets the tone of the whole quintet. What makes this particular quintet exciting is Schubert’s innovative harmonic writing. Instead of just adhering to expectant tonic and dominant shifts in the structure, he also uses mediants and submediants to create musical colour and excitement.

With abrupt harmonic shifts the music quickly moves through each section of the form. The end of the exposition section ends in E major and suddenly switches into C major for the development section. This keeps the music exciting and the listener on the edge of their seat as to what might happen next.

The violin and piano dominate the melodies of this movement, with the other strings playing a much more accompaniment-led part. The instruments intertwine and create colourful patterns of music that just fizz with classic Schubert flair.

II. Andante

The expressive second movement, marked ‘Andante’, is composed of two symmetrical sections. The second section is a transposed version of the first, which again exploits Schubert’s developmental harmonic language. The movement ends in the key that it started in – F major – however the journey between the two is full of twists and turns. Again, the violin and piano take dominance over the melodic material, with the others accompanying off-beats and constant quaver movement.


III. Scherzo: Presto

The spritely third movement is the one that doesn’t quite follow the unifying theme idea. There is a lot of call and response happening in this movement between the upper and lower instruments which creates drama in the music. Schubert’s use of dynamics in this movement is also pertinent, with unifying moments being louder than the more solo-led passages. The fun-loving melody keeps returning, creating a sense of familiarity for the listener.


IV. Andantino – Allegretto

The much-anticipated fourth movement is a theme and variations on Schubert’s Die Forelle. The variations take the original melodic content and use decorations such as trills and mordents to create the variations. The theme is passed around each instrument with each member of the quintet portraying a variation.

Schubert varies the mood for each of the variations. For instance, the opening violin variation is much more solemn than the perky piano variation after it. After continually modulating, the movement unifies the instruments at the end to finish in the opening key once more.


V. Allegro giusto

Similarly to the second movement, the finale movement also has two symmetrical sections. Again, Schubert utilises harmony in this movement and soon begins to move around various keys, which was largely contradictory to the usual Classical style. You can hear lots of call and response between the instruments, with particularly important lines being emphasised by the whole quintet.

A cascading piano motif ends up being a quasi-cadenza as the instruments soon jump back in to create an exciting polyphonic texture. The finale movement ends with contrasting loud and quiet call and responses between the quintet before they unite for the grand last three chords.


Final Thoughts

Franz Schubert’s Trout Quintet is an important work due to the composer’s experimentation of harmony. Schubert’s quick and unexpected changes adds to the colourful melodic writing of each movement. The importance of this development inspired Schubert to use these ideas in later chamber works for piano trio and four-hand piano works.

You might have also heard part of this quintet in midi form if you have a Samsung washer or dryer, as it is the call the cycle has finished!


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Gustav Mahler: Piano Quartet in A minor


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