July 16 2024 : Schubert’s Strings & Nielsen’s Winds

May 8, 2024

CM3 July 16
CMF musicians

Carl Nielsen, Wind Quintet, Op.43 23’

Schubert, String Quintet in C major, Op. 163, D. 956 55’

Carl Nielsen, Wind Quintet, Op.43

By turns vivid, languorous and lighthearted, Carl Nielsen’s Wind Quintet is a treasured example of the composer’s offbeat genius. Inspiration for the piece came one evening in 1921 when the Danish composer placed a call to Christian Christiansen, a pianist friend who was rehearsing with members of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet. As the two men chatted, the other musicians continued playing in the background. Nielsen was so captivated by the sounds coming over the phone that he asked to stop by to hear more of the rehearsal. Afterwards, he told oboist Svend Christian Felumb that he would like to write a quintet for the group. 

In fact, Nielsen was so taken with the quintet that he also planned a series of solo concertos for its members but only got as far as those for flute and clarinet. Players of the horn, oboe, and bassoon can only imagine what might have been. 

The Wind Quintet’s pastoral first movement is congenial and conversational in mood, with themes tossed between instruments, starting with the solo bassoon, and building to march-like middle section. The elegant Menuet has an antique quality, and features two duets, first between the clarinet and bassoon, then between the flute and oboe, followed by a denser, contrapuntal middle section. The finale opens with a somber Praeludium in which the oboist switches temporarily to English horn. This leads to a hymn-like chorale theme and a set of eleven variations. There are soliloquies and duets throughout the movement, a measure of how well Nielsen got to know each of the musicians’ personalities. 

Schubert, String Quintet in C Major, Op. 163, D. 956

The String Quintet in C Major is the fruit of Franz Schubert’s awesomely productive final year, when one masterwork after another poured from him as if from a mystical spring. When he sent the score to his publisher in October 1828, he prefaced it with a typically self-effacing note, writing, “Finally, I have written a quintet for 2 violins, 1 viola, and 2 violoncellos … The quintet rehearsal will only begin in the next few days. Should any of these compositions by any chance commend themselves to you, please let me know.” 

Six weeks later, Schubert was dead at the age of 31, having never seen the miraculous quintet in print. It lay forgotten until 1850, when the Hellmesberger Quartet took up its cause. Three years later it was finally published. 

In adding a second cello to a string quartet (rather than a second viola, as characteristic of Mozart’s quintets), Schubert was following the earlier precedent of Boccherini, who wrote more than 100 two-cello quintets. It is unclear what inspired Schubert’s scoring, but it gives the piece an added sense of profundity while maintaining its essential grace. The composer found imaginative ways to exploit the warmth and richness of the paired cellos, notably in the mellifluous second theme of the first movement.  

The unique instrumentation also allows the inner voices to pull more weight, as in the poignant Adagio, when the second cello adds a simple plucked bass line and the first violin delivers the melody, comprised of a series of halting, hypnotic phrases. The scherzo has a symphonic heft with its big, stomping theme, while the finale sways with a joyous abandon, though not without some minor-key shadows. Rather than ending this monumental score with a sense of pure conquest, Schubert injects a nagging D-flat—a half step above the home base of C Major—as a reminder that victory never arrives easily. 

— Brian Wise

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