Coming to know Schubert’s Octet
Native to Austria, Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was a prolific composer who made substantial contributions to the symphonic genre, chamber music and German Lied. He drew on the Viennese Classical tradition, but also forged his own path within the Romantic period, composing a complex yet subtle musical language at the same time. Although, during his lifetime, much appreciation was limited to close circles, his works became far more widely recognised after his death and he became eventually one of the most influential composers during the 19th century.
It is believed that syphilis was the cause of Schubert’s early death and, in accordance with his wishes, the 31-year-old was buried in Vienna near Beethoven.
So taken was Count Troyer with Beethoven’s Septet, Op. 20, that he commissioned a similar work from Schubert. Unlike Beethoven’s piece, a second violin was added to this Octet, resulting in the unusual combination of a string quartet, plus clarinet, horn, bassoon, and double bass.
Although Schubert was in poor health while composing the Octet, the overall character of the composition is lively, with only occasional, brief spells of darkness that foreshadow the melancholy of his later music.
Franz Schubert – Octet in F major D. 803 (1824)
I. Adagio – Allegro – Più allegro
III. Allegro vivace – Trio – Allegro vivace
IV. Andante – variations. Un poco più mosso – Più lento
V. Menuetto. Allegretto – Trio – Menuetto – Coda
VI. Andante molto – Allegro – Andante molto – Allegro molto
The opening movement pronounces the home key of F major and a jumpy rhythmic idea that re-appears throughout the work.The Adagio, or the second movement opens with a singing clarinet solo that blossoms into a duet alongside the violin. A shadow passes over the end of this movement, as a pizzicato F note on the cello and anguished chords punctuate the coda.Returning to F major, the next movement reasserts the dotted rhythms introduced at the beginning.
The fourth movement features a set of variations on a theme from the operetta Die Freunde von Salamanka. The theme passes cleverly around the ensemble, affirming the equal relationship between the eight instruments.
The lighter atmosphere of the fifth movement seems welcome after the complexity of what has come before; the architecture of this Minuet and Trio looks to a Classical style.
It is followed by the troubled opening of the last movement which soon gives way to a fast and jolly theme. But, the F major chord that begins this melody is somewhat hard-won over the slow introduction, which features the use of tremolo – the fast repetition of a single note on the cello. The movement then proceeds with some uncertainty, exploring various keys and coming to a halt more than once before culminating in a rushing and energetic finish.
Coming to Know John Metcalf’s Octet
by John Metcalf
In November 2014, I started work on some Welsh folk songs settings. The originals are, of course, very expressive and characterful none more so than the almost heartbreaking beautiful Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn. After setting it, I immediately made sketches for further development of and variations on the song and shortly after wrote the piano piece CHANT based on it. When, last year, Peryn Clement-Evans asked me to write an Octet for Ensemble Cymru I knew at once which ideas and sketches I wanted to develop.
The combination of instruments for which Schubert wrote his monumental Octet – Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon and String Quintet (with Double Bass) – is both sonorous and sombre and gives full rein to the singing qualities of his music. Wales is also renowned for its singing and the instrumentation is a real gift, perhaps particularly for a Welsh composer. The singing that I have referenced here is hymn singing and I have accentuated that choice by the use of a pedal note ‘A’ throughout the entire piece.
In composing the work, I was conscious too of the well-known jibe that the only thing to do after playing a folk-song was to play it again louder. In an attempt to belie this, and in the search for a musical experience that would develop and evolve during the playing time, I took as my starting point the fact that this beautiful song commemorates the fate of star-crossed lovers – Ann Maddocks and Wil Hopcyn.
While not following this tragic love story sequentially, I have tried to reflect both its highs and lows, and these find their further expression in the deliberate use of opposites in the work, male and female, question and answer, major and minor modalities.
At times, the (male) wind instruments counterpoint the (female) string instruments, each group acting in the manner of subliminal alter egos. The folk song arrangement is placed at the end of the piece in an attempt to contextualise it within the continuity of human experience in our age-old country.
There are seven sections to this 2O’ work – Introduction;Variation 1; Variation 11; Variation 111; Variation 1V; Variation V; Theme.
Finally, I wish to record my grateful thanks to Ensemble Cymru for commissioning such an ambitious work at a time of great financial stringency in the arts in Wales.