Franz Schubert

String Quintet in C major

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: 50–55 Minutes
Genre: Quintet
Time of Creation: 1828
World Premiere: Unknown (earliest known public performance posthumously 1850 (Vienna); first printed posthumously 1853)

Table of Contents

Schubert's String Quintet in C major in 5 Sentences

Franz Schubert, 31 years old and seriously ill with syphilis, wrote his String Quintet in C major a few weeks before his death, at the same time as his last three piano sonatas. Although the work was written under the impression of illness, approaching death and poverty, Schubert surprisingly chooses the key of C major, which is generally more associated with serenity and vitality. The piece, scored for two violins, a viola, and two cellos, was rehearsed during Schubert’s lifetime but never performed. The String Quintet in C major is Schubert’s most extensive (and probably most mature) chamber music work. All the phenomena typical of Schubert’s personal style, such as expansive dimensions (see Highlight 1), concentration on sound rather than melody (see Highlight 1), and sharp contrasts (see Highlights 2 and 3), are included here.

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Schubert's String Quintet in C Major

Highlight 1: First movement – huge dimensions

It is one of Schubert’s idiosyncrasies that his late works – and especially the 1st movements – often have almost unbelievable dimensions. This is also the case here. The 1st movement of the String Quintet in C major lasts an enormous 21 minutes!

A good approach to this monumental movement is to first listen only to the exposition (the first part of the movement). At about 5 minutes, this is already unusually long, but it exhibits several remarkable phenomena: Schubert, for example, does not open the work with a memorable melody (as one might expect), but simply with a sound.

And then, from about halfway through the exposition (in the video from 02:28), the secondary theme comes in. Tastes differ, as we all know, but for me this secondary theme is one of the most wonderful melodies in classical music:

Highlight 2: Second movement – deep calm and...

The 2nd movement is marked by an extreme contrast. It begins and ends in deep tranquility….

Highlight 3: ...turbulence!

…but in between it is all the more turbulent:

Highlight 4: Fourth movement – Hungarian dance music

In the last movement, Schubert imitates Hungarian dance music. This is an interesting parallel to a much later quintet by another composer, Johannes Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet:

3 Questions and Answers about Schubert's String Quintet in C Major

Question 1: How was Schubert's String Quintet in C major received?

Music publishers of the time could hardly do anything with the work. While other chamber music compositions by Schubert were published quite soon after his death (1828), it took 25 years before the String Quintet in C major was printed.

Question 2: Has Schubert's String Quintet in C major been used in other contexts?

Yes. The second movement in particular is often heard in films as background music. Examples include „Die Wannseekonferenz“, „The Limits of Control“ and „Wohin und zurück“.

Question 3: Who was Schubert's role model?

For Franz Schubert, Ludwig van Beethoven in particular was a role model. Beethoven’s death in 1827 – one year before the composition of the String Quintet in C major – had deeply affected Schubert.

2 Recommended Recordings of Schubert's String Quintet in C major

Recording 1: Gustav Frielinghaus, Lena Sandoz, Mareike Hefti, Yves Sandoz, Jens Peter Maintz (Live, 2021)

The established Amaryllis Quartet and additional cellist Jens Peter Maintz succeed here in producing a particularly elegant Schubert sound:

Recording 2: Janine Jansen, Julia-Maria Kretz, Mâtè Szücs, Daniel Blendulf, Jan-Erik Gustafsson (Live, 2011)

One of the great challenges of performing Schubert’s String Quintet in C major is that it must not sound like five individual soloists. The ensemble must make music together and always be well balanced. In my opinion, this performance does just that particularly well – the first violin is played here by the exceptional violinist Janine Jansen:

1 Quote about Schubert's String Quintet in C Major

Before Franz Schubert's String Quintet in C major, all people to whom music, even chamber music, means something, bow happily in admiration – or they rave. The work occupies a singular place in Schubert's oeuvre, indeed in musical literature. It is enigmatic, and it is complete ... With words, no human being can completely unravel the sounding mystery of this work or bring it to terms.

Joachim Kaiser

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