Concert Notes: Schubert Octet

MCO’s Schubert Octet can be heard in Melbourne on Saturday 21 April at Anglican Church Daylesford and Sunday 22 April at Melbourne Recital Centre.


Having begun composing at age ten, Martin received a full scholarship to the Tanglewood Summer Festival as a composer in 1988, where he worked with Robert Sirota. Four years later the great American pianist John Browning gave the World Premiere of Martin’s Three Portrait Etudes at the Alice Tully Hall, New York. Newsday wrote “Martin’s Etudes are challenging (and rewarding) studies in linear modernism”, while the New York Times wrote of their “arresting style”.

More recently, Martin composed paraphrases on renowned minimalist Terry Riley’s Salome Dances for string quartet. Riley wrote “I have listened to your Half Wolf arrangement several times and continue to be wonderfully impressed by both the arrangement and your playing of it”.

The MCO has premiered works by Martin in the past, including the triple-concerto Trinitas. The event was attended by renowned pianist Murray Perahia, who praised the work highly.

The composer writes:
This work has been germinating for a long time: the canonic theme actually came to me while I was taking the NY subway as a student at Juilliard back in 1991. Until recently, it lay on a shelf as one of those fond, poignant sketches that seemed predestined to be denied any suitable context.

Yet when I was given the opportunity to write a piece for Schubert’s Octet instrumentation, the wistful theme re-entered my mind, and I set to work. What was formerly a very simple eight-bar canon transformed into a fairly elaborate, lyrical work which I entitled Passepied. And the theme itself – originally in a 3/2 meter – evolved into a fleet-footed 6/4, in which event the swiftness of the ancient dance-form was captured within a lilting, gliding hemiola.

String Quartet No 11 in F minor Op 95 Serioso

  • Allegro con brio
  • Allegretto ma non troppo—
  • Allegro assai vivace ma serioso
  • Larghetto espressivo—Allegretto agitato—Allegro

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) composed chamber music across a wide range of genres in various combinations of instruments. His string quartets are among the most significant pillars of the chamber music repertoire and in many ways are the point of reference to the future development of the genre. Beethoven’s string quartets were influenced by those of Haydn and Mozart who provided a foundation for him to develop and push the boundaries of style, expectation and realisation. The 16 quartets cover the composer’s life and are important markers in his compositional output.

String Quartet No 11 in F minor was given the title Quartett Serioso by the composer. It was written in 1810, premiered in 1814 and published in 1816. At this time Beethoven composed the Fifth Piano Concerto (1809), the Archduke Trio (1810–11), the Seventh Symphony (1811–12), and the Eighth Symphony (1812).

Following the composition of this quartet Beethoven did not write again in this medium for fourteen years when he composed his last quartets. In a letter at the time Beethoven stated that “The Quartet [Op. 95] is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public.” This work is one of the shortest of all the quartets and exemplifies Beethoven’s experiments in compositional techniques including his use of silence, tonality and his use of sonata form. These are explored more fully in his later quartets.
The quartet is in four movements with the opening Allegro con brio in sonata form. In this we see Beethoven working through a number of seemingly unrelated keys producing a sense of continuous development and evolution within the sonata form framework.

The second movement Allegretto ma non troppo is in a simple binary (or two-part) form with the second section a contrapuntal contrast. There is no break between the second and third movements. While the third movement is in scherzo form its marking of Allegro assai vivace ma serioso belies the joke-like character of the form. The final movement commences with a slow, expressive opening Larghetto espressivo, and then moves into the Allegretto agitato in sonata-rondo form where the main theme provides great material for development and exploration. The Allegro coda provides an exhilarating contrast in character to the pervasive mood of the preceding movements.

Octet in F major D 803

  • Adagio—Allegro
  • Adagio
  • Scherzo: Allegro vivace—Trio
  • Andante con variazioni
  • Menuetto: Allegretto
  • Andante molto—Allegro

Like Beethoven, Franz Schubert (1797–1828) composed chamber music throughout his life and this formed a major part of his compositional output: piano trios, string quartets, a piano quintet, a string quintet and the octet among others. These works provide great insight into his thinking and creative development as a composer. In each of the genres he was exploring a range of sonorities and emotions and pushing the boundaries.

The Octet in F major is the largest of Schubert’s chamber works in instrumentation and duration. He composed it in March 1824 at the same time as he was writing the string quartets Rosamunde D 804 and Death and the Maiden D 810. Like so much of the composer’s music the work was not published in his lifetime—indeed, not until 1889 thanks to the advocacy of Johannes Brahms.

The Octet was commissioned by the clarinettist Ferdinand Troyer who requested a work similar to Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat Major Op 20 of 1800. The resultant Octet admirably satisified Troyer’s commission with Schubert following Beethoven’s model of presenting the work in six movements, scored for a string quartet, double bass, clarinet, horn, and bassoon – similar to the Beethoven Septet with an additional violin. The structure of the movements as well as the key relationships also mirrors Beethoven’s Septet. In many ways the work is a development of the classical divertimento or serenade as exemplified by Mozart.

The first and last movements have a slow introduction before the main ideas are unfolded. The main theme of the first movement Allegro is based on Schubert’s song Der Wanderer. The second movement Adagio features the ethereal main theme presented by the clarinet. The middle movements include a scherzo and trio, a set of seven variations on a theme taken from the composer’s singspiel, Die Freunde von Salamanka, and a minuet and trio. The finale is a fun, light-hearted and energetic summation of this joyful musical experience.

David Forrest