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About this Piece

This is one of Schubert’s very last compositions. The autograph has disappeared, but from a letter of October 2, 1828 to the Leipzig publisher Probst, in which Schubert refers to the work having been finished and given an initial play-through “in the last few days,” we can assume a date of September 1828.

That Schubert should have included a second cello in his quintet rather than the second viola of Mozart’s quintets is of less importance than why he should have turned to the medium to begin with. The last of Schubert’s quartets, the G major D. 887 of June 1826, is a work conceived on such an expansive scale that it is difficult to imagine how Schubert could have continued in the same vein without stretching the medium to the breaking point. The progression from quartet to quintet therefore became a means of coping with that expansion of scale which is the hallmark of Schubert’s late works and, as with Mozart, of escaping its egalitarian demands.

Like Mozart, Schubert relishes the quintet’s potential for concertante interplay and experiments in tone color. The scoring allows for the exploitation of two homogenous blocks of timbre, centered around a pivotal viola, with the first cello enjoying the limelight as much as the first violin. Schubert complements this inherent timbral contrast with the often disturbing juxtaposition, again characteristic of his late works, of lyrical passages against others which are violent, unsettled, or downright disruptive. The slow movement demonstrates this most clearly; so does the gear change from the Scherzo to its trio, or the emergence of the second group in the first movement apparently out of thin air. This is even true of the last movement, which some have criticized as lightweight, forgetting that the departure from the quartet medium can signal a relaxation of its intellectual demands if needs be.

— Geoff Thomason