It was the aforementioned Ignaz Schuppanzigh who brought together the players for which Schubert wrote his Octet. The work was commissioned by one of the participants in its premiere, Count Ferdinand Troyer, an avid and, from the evidence of this work, highly accomplished clarinetist, here taking a central role with the opportunity for both showily virtuosic and expressively cantabile playing.
(The bassoon and horn parts are likewise demanding: considering the difficulties of the horn part, notably in the first movement coda, it must have been intended for a player of the greatest skill.)
Troyer, whose day job was steward to Beethoven’s royal pupil and patron, the Archduke Rudolph, stipulated that the Octet resemble in layout the almost identically scored Septet in A (1799) by Beethoven, somewhat to his chagrin the Titan’s most popular work during his lifetime. Troyer and Schubert, it might be noted, were both pallbearers at Beethoven’s funeral in 1827.
The Septet and Octet are both divertimentos, with six movements and an overall spirit of good-humored vigorousness. Schubert’s first movement begins slowly, as does the finale. And further following Beethoven’s pattern, the later composer includes both a scherzo and minuet, and a theme and variation fourth movement, the theme taken from the 18-year-old Schubert’s opera Die Freunde von Salamanka (unperformed during his lifetime and little heard since, like all his operas), in which solo violin and clarinet take the leads.
A particularly memorable episode for this listener occurs in the Adagio, when after being silent for the first 40 measures the horn engages in an exquisite colloquy with the bassoon and clarinet. Striking too is the melodramatic opening to the finale, when after all the preceding sunshine the skies darken, the thunder rumbles – as if a memory of the composer’s worst times – only to have the joviality subsequently return (but not without another, briefer episode of darkness), redoubled.
The Octet was premiered given Troyer’s Vienna residence in the fall of 1824.
Herbert Glass has written for many publications in the U.S. and abroad and was for 15 years an editor-annotator for the Salzburg Festival.