Our music for this week is the String Quintet in C for two violins, viola, and two cellos. It is often referred to as simply “The Cello Quintet,” and it is one of Schubert’s most memorable and important compositions. Those of you who are musicians will know that the music of Schubert is all about texture. Schubert was the master of creating an endless variety of textures through harmonic interaction and instrument choice. In the Cello Quintet, the added cello (most string ensembles have two violins, one viola, and only one cello) adds a layer of density and richness to the sound of the ensemble.
At the time he wrote this piece, Schubert was nearing the end of his life and was very aware of the kind of legacy that he wanted to leave behind. Many have speculated that he viewed himself as the successor to Beethoven, who died before he could finish his C major quintet. It is easy to see how, given his conception of his relationship to Beethoven and his knowledge of his nearing death, Schubert wrote the Cello Quintet in an effort to cement his legacy in a way that Beethoven never had.
The most famous and wonderful theme in the quintet can be heard at minute 2:54. As you might imagine, it is played by the cellos. It is the pinnacle of musical purity, a trait that is made clearer by its juxtaposition with dissonant harmonies both before and after it. In my mind, this melody is the height of musical expression, encapsulating both the searching and restful elements of humanity in one glorious, transcendent exploration of harmony.