This week’s music, the Octet in F Major by Franz Schubert, begins a four-week series that will explore music written for the octet (8-person) ensemble. We will begin with Schubert, but our series will include works by the Romanian composer George Enescu and, of course, the famous Mendelssohn octet.
The octet is an ensemble of 8 musicians that toes the line between chamber music and string orchestra. Most octets feature two first violins, two second violins, two violas, and two cellos, but Schubert’s octet isn’t like most. It includes two violins, a viola, a cello, a double bass, a clarinet, a french horn, and a bassoon. This unconventional scoring was because the commissioner of the work, Count Ferdinand von Troyer, happened to be a highly skilled clarinetist. Schubert therefore wrote the octet to include (and, indeed, prominently feature) a clarinet.
At the time he wrote the octet, Schubert was in immense physical pain. As it turns out, he was only a few years from his death (he died at the young age of 31 in 1828). He wrote, “I feel myself the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world. Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and who in sheer despair over this makes things worse and worse instead of better.” He begins the final movement of the octet with a quote from a song he had previously written called “The Gods of Greece”:
Fair world, where are you? Return again,
sweet springtime of nature!
Alas, only in the magic land of song
does your fabled memory live on.
The octet has six movements. The first and last movements both begin with a slow introduction, followed by a high-paced exploration of multiple overlapping themes. Listen for the extended horn solos throughout the first movement. The middle movements feature a minuet and a scherzo, both of which were popular dance rhythms in Schubert’s time. You may notice the original melody returning at the very end of the last movement.