When I was in high school orchestra, we played and performed the first movement of Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony. Like other orchestral pieces I played in high school, I remember it (or at least, I remember the 2nd violin part) decently well, many years and two long breaks from the violin later.
Even more than fingerings or bowing, however, I remember our orchestra teacher, Mr. Thomas, telling us that we should work hard on the piece and play it well, “for Schubert.” He told us a story about Schubert: that he wore his glasses to bed so that he could wake up and immediately start writing music again. At the time I was about 13 years old and didn’t know much about that composer, or any composer. I thought Franz was a funny name, and I had the sort of sense of humor that thought that singing “this is the symphony . . . that Schubert wrote but never finished” to the main theme tune was the height of cleverness. I was just getting my first pair of glasses. Like my parents before me, I am nearsighted and spent a lot of time indoors reading books. Composers weren’t really people to me, yet, until that comment.
I’m a long way from high school orchestra now, and it has been challenging to find my place and get my musical footing after moving across the country a year and a half ago. Since arriving in the SF Bay Area, I have played in a number of different orchestras and chamber groups of diverse sizes and skill levels, and I have played both my instruments (violin and viola)–although not at the same time. There has already been a lot of hustle and bustle this holiday season, and we’re only midway through Advent.
In the middle of all this, I got a chance to play another piece for Schubert: the first movement of the Cello Quintet in C major. I started out as a substitute for the regular violist in an SBP-affiliated chamber group that was playing it. I had never heard, or even heard of, this piece before this opportunity. The afternoon before the rehearsal where I was scheduled to sub, I looked through the set of chamber music that I inherited from a gentleman in my orchestra in Massachusetts. The Schubert Cello Quintet parts were there, and they looked to be in great shape. I found a recording on YouTube with Isaac Stern and Pablo Casals. I figured one couldn’t go wrong with those two, and listened to it while I was making dinner.
When I got to the rehearsal, I was outnumbered: two violins (one of them the concertmaster) to the right, two cellos (one of them the principal) to the left. Everyone was very welcoming and friendly, but I still spent that first rehearsal hanging on by my fingernails, glad for my music glasses, and trying not to get lost in the 16th notes or have too many “violin moments” on my viola. I was overwhelmed by how beautiful the melody and countermelody were in this movement, shared between the violins, between the cellos, even between the viola and one or another of the other instruments. This piece was definitely not a violin concerto with accompaniment. It was a privilege to play it. I hoped I would be able to do so again.
After the summer break, I became the regular violist for the group, and in the autumn still came to chamber group rehearsals even when I couldn’t make the full orchestra rehearsal due to a family commitment. I took the 16th notes to my teacher, got a good fingering, and worked them up to tempo with the metronome (quarter note = 120). I joined an informal chamber music reading group and started to feel more like a real violist by improving my alto clef reading. In the long chords, we tried to synchronize our vibrato, something I found pretty challenging, but which had wonderful results for the sound of the group as a whole. We also experimented with different seating arrangements. I had started out next to cello 1 because we played several figures together and needed to hear and see each other, but after listening to a homemade recording, I thought cello 1 needed to move to the outside across from violin 1 (a more common configuration), for balance. And, all five of us worked to make more eye contact throughout the piece–while making sure to not get lost when finally looking back at the music. In the process I discovered that the viola needs to look back and forth between the violins and the cellos a fair bit, no matter which cello I am sitting next to. Even though there is only one of me, my part is an essential bridge between the upper and lower voices.
The Cello Quintet was Schubert’s last chamber work composed before his untimely death, and he did not live to see it published or publicly performed. Wikipedia calls it “Schubert’s finest chamber work as well as one of the greatest compositions in all chamber music.” This is our recording of the first movement:
Read more about my musical adventures on my violinist.com blog.