Musician’s View – 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.

In our regular series, we spoke to our Principal Bass Emma Sullivan about the music in our upcoming performances, Schubert Octet.

MCO: Well, this is exciting. We don’t often get to talk to you about chamber music.

Emma: Yes, I am absolutely thrilled to be joining the Australian Octet for this season and to be playing one of the great masterpieces of chamber music for the double bass, Schubert’s Octet. The double bass is sadly often left on the sidelines when it comes to chamber music and people are surprised to discover that there is a wealth of repertoire for the instrument. Schubert composed arguably the most famous work of chamber music for the double bass – his “Trout” Quintet – five years prior to the Octet, inspiring over fifty quintets for the same instrumentation to follow. My personal favourite of these is Vaughan Williams’ Quintet in C minor, which was only published in 2002, despite being written early in the composer’s career. Schubert’s Octet is clearly influenced by another great work – Beethoven’s Septet from 1800, which uses the same forces without a second violin and is on a similarly grand scale. Whilst it is always rewarding to revisit great works for the double bass such as Schubert’s Octet, it is also exciting to take part in building the repertoire for your instrument and I am really looking forward to performing Benjamin Martin’s new work for Octet, Passepied.

MCO: Is it going to be much different for you playing in this octet compared to playing in a chamber orchestra with 5 or 6 more people?

Emma: Working with the Australian Octet is going to be a little different to playing with the larger ensemble of Melbourne Chamber Orchestra. In our chamber orchestra programs, I work very closely with the cello section and often we share the same part. It is important for me to match and blend with the cellos to create a unanimous and well-balanced lower string sound. In the Octet, I have my own independent part to project. Although it is still imperative that we all listen to each other and work toward a united sound and artistic vision, there will be more opportunity for our unique musical voices to be heard. This combination of solo and ensemble playing is what makes chamber music so rewarding for musicians and why I am so looking forward to this program.

MCO: The Schubert Octet is one of the most famous pieces of chamber music – what do you think is special about it?

Emma: Firstly, I think the instrumentation makes the Octet quite unique, allowing for a more diverse array of colour, texture and dynamic than would be possible with a more homogenised ensemble. Schubert’s democratic writing takes full advantage of the possibilities of the instruments of the Octet and allows them all to shine. Another aspect of the Octet that makes it so loved is its singing melodic content. Some of these melodies directly borrow from Schubert’s vocal works. For example, the theme from the fourth movement is taken from his singspiel Die Freunde von Salamanka. Finally, I think the grand scale of the Octet allows it to stand alone as one of the great chamber music works of the 19th century. The six movements encapsulate a full gamut of emotions and characters, ranging from the understated elegance and simplicity of the second movement, to the playful third movement and ending with the rustic energy of the finale.