Octet in F major, D. 803

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Franz Schubert is revered today as one of the greatest composers of the Romantic period: the master of the German Lied and creator of some of our most beloved works for orchestra.  However, during his lifetime Schubert could never quite escape the sense that he was living in Beethoven’s shadow, and this notion haunted him throughout his career.  He was constantly confronted by the challenges of trying to develop as a composer in the same city in which Beethoven loomed large; he struggled financially, and at the time of his early death much of his work remained unpublished.

It may well have been with mixed emotions, therefore, that Schubert received a commission in 1824 from clarinetist Ferdinand Troyer, requesting a chamber piece—in the style of Beethoven’s Septet in Eb Major.  The Septet was already over twenty years old that time but was still immensely popular—was Schubert never to be free from the Viennese public’s pressure to conform to the famous composer’s style?  Schubert asked for permission to add a second violin to his piece, making it an octet, perhaps as a small act of assertion to create a distinction between the two works.  The Octet was first performed at the home of Troyer’s employer, Archduke Rudolf—to whom, incidentally, Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio is dedicated—and many of the musicians were the same ones who premiered the Septet years earlier.

Though Schubert chose F major as his key instead of Beethoven’s Eb major, the harmonic relationships remain identical for much of the piece.  The Octet’s six movements also have a similar lightness to them as in Beethoven’s work, but with subtleties and nuances that belong to Schubert alone—these moments of shadow in an otherwise sunny piece perhaps belie Schubert’s inner struggles even as he dons a mask to meet the public’s demands.  As in the Septet, the first movement begins with a slow introduction, but Schubert opens his piece with an air of elusiveness rather than Beethoven’s confident declaration of a chord in the home key; the Octet holds a suspended pitch before settling into the movement and key.  The clarinet emerges to carry the melody, as it so often will throughout the piece.  Soon it leads into the Allegro section and the movement can get down to business, developing an upward dotted motive passed among the instruments.

The Adagio starts off right away with the clarinet’s lyrical melody, sailing above a lilting figure in the strings.  The violin joins in and the two instruments blend in rhapsodic dialogue.  The bright third movement, an Allegro Vivace – Trio, is a shift in mood.  It begins immediately with a buoyant dance like tune in a triple meter, almost rustic in feel.

The Andante is built from a theme and its seven variations—among Schubert’s finest.  The material for the variation set comes from the duet “Gelagert unterm hellen Dach” from Schubert’s 1815 Singspiel Die Freunde von Salamanka.  Variation sets from Schubert’s time typically remained in the same key with one variation in the opposite mode, but Schubert breaks from tradition to expand the harmonic structure as he goes farther into his set, before returning to the original key by the seventh and last variation.

Next, a dance—an elegant Menuetto, full of dreamy triplets.  For all that this is a lilting dance movement, however, the upward phrases lend an unresolved, questioning quality to its lightness.

Finally, the sixth and last movement, which, like the first movement and like the finale of Beethoven’s Septet, begins with a slow introduction—a dark and ominous shift in the piece, with  low tremolo in the strings.  As though a veil is lifted, the introduction fades away into calm and suddenly breaks into the Allegro, a spirited dance with a toe-tapping rhythm.  The flow of the movement is arrested after the development section—Beethoven had done the same with a cadenza, but Schubert brings back his slow introduction instead and brings a sudden gravity into the middle of all the fun.  Before too long, however, he returns to the Allegro, and the piece accelerates to a close.

© Pamela Feo