Schubert, Franz: D803, Octet

Despite his present fame and unquestioned importance in classical music history, FRANZ SCHUBERT is a strangely enigmatic figure. He is perhaps most famous for his lieder, but, especially toward the end of his life, he was an equally accomplished innovator in large-scale structures. Sometimes, also, he seems the paradigmatic composer of hausmusik (a composer in the company of friends); other times he shows up as the profound and introverted symphonic precursor to Bruckner (Schumann, famously, and a bit ambiguously, wrote of the ‘heavenly length’ of Schubert’s Ninth symphony). The strange result of these varied impressions and characterizations is that it’s very easy to identify with the idea of Schubert and the music of Schubert (because he can fit so many possible projections), but it’s rather hard to definitively identify him as a musical and historical figure.

The Octet in F major is a case in point – most particularly because it is not a particularly enigmatic piece. Like the C major (‘Great’) Symphony (for which the Octet is something of a study or preparation), it is rather lengthy. But whereas the Ninth Symphony supports an increasingly vast emotional and compositional landscape as it proceeds through its ‘heavenly length’, the Octet has strong outer movements that support rather light and sociable middle movements. Schubert, deftly, creates ‘heavenly length’ just as effectively in the earthy span of the Octet as he does in the unearthly sublimity of the C major symphony. The Octet has a great lightness.

It is light because it was supposed to be light– a divertimento for a social occasion, perhaps an occasion outdoors. The Octet was commissioned in 1824 by Ferdinand, Count Troyer (a clarinettist), to be a companion piece to Beethoven’s Septet for strings and winds. Schubert almost certainly looked to Beethoven’s piece as a model; he wrote the same number of movements, with very similar tempos, and one extra violin. Like the ‘Trout’ quintet, the Octet is one of Schubert’s most beloved works, showing him in is most open and joyful incarnation.

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