Skip to page content

“I have written very few new songs, but instead I have tried my hand at several kinds of instrumental music and composed two string quartets [no less than the great A-minor “Rosamunde” and “Death and the Maiden”] and an octet... The latest news in Vienna is that Beethoven is giving a concert, at which his new symphony, three selections from the new Mass, and a new overture are to be performed.” Schubert to his friend Leopold Kupelwieser on March 31, 1824.

The Beethoven compositions referred to are his last symphony (the recently completed Ninth), the Consecration of the House Overture, and the Missa Solemnis. The octet by Schubert is the present work.

The Octet was commissioned by Count Ferdinand von Troyer, chief steward to the Emperor Leopold II’s youngest brother, the Archduke Rudolph, an erstwhile Beethoven pupil. Troyer was a keen and presumably highly skilled (or at the very least ambitious) amateur clarinetist – the clarinet part having been written specifically for him.

The Octet was created in a few weeks of February and March, 1824, and first performed in April in the home of a friend of Troyer’s on Vienna’s Graben. The ensemble was led by violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, whose string quartet premiered most of the late Beethoven quartets and who had received the dedication of the aforementioned Schubert A-minor Quartet.

The first public performance of the Octet did not take place until 1827 – again led by Schuppanzigh – and the score was not published until a quarter-century after the composer’s death, and then in a truncated version. The complete Octet did not appear in print until the 1880s – the fate of so much of the composer’s output.

Troyer had conceived of a score that would be related to the Septet for winds and strings, Op. 20, by Beethoven, which retained its popularity in its original version and in transcriptions throughout the 19th century – to such a degree that the composer was peeved that its fame overshadowed his more substantial creations.

Schubert’s friend Moritz von Schwind recalled the time when Schubert was working on the Octet: “When visiting him during the day he gives his greetings, asks how everything is, and when asked how things go with him, he responds ‘fine,’ without interrupting his writing. So one leaves.” He may have been totally immersed in his composing yet would never close his door to his friends.

Schubert, without denying his own proclivities, satisfied the Count’s commission in a number of ways. The instrumentation conformed largely to Beethoven’s model – clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and double bass, to which Schubert added a second violin. The six-movement structure, based on the 18th-century serenade, was maintained. Furthermore, the slow introductions of both outer movements, the juxtaposition of an “old-fashioned” minuet and a “modern” scherzo, and a succession of variations positioned between these two movements were all employed.

Dotted rhythms play a major role in animating this long work – as long as any instrumental piece by the composer – and are most prominently employed in the opening movement, in the Adagio, and to a fare-thee-well in the Scherzo. The Adagio was tailored specifically to the expressive and technical mastery of clarinetist Troyer. The horn, tested to the max in the opening movement, is silent for the first 40 bars here. Perhaps the composer thought he’d be exhausted by the demands earlier placed on him. But toward the end he joins in a magical chamber miniature, a trio with clarinet and bassoon, within the larger chamber structure.

The two subsequent movements take us from the out of doors (the hunting Scherzo) to a Viennese café, in the delectable Theme and Variations, with the clarinet again center-stage. The main theme of the concluding Allegro is preceded by a few measures of unexpected seriousness, a bit of shock treatment amid all the joviality, whereupon Schubert launches into a jolly, rhythmically tricky allegro. Before the last stretto the introductory admonishment – Françaix was certainly listening – is heard one final time.

Herbert Glass, after serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera, was for 25 years a critic / columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He recently completed his 16th season as English-language editor / annotator for the Salzburg Festival.