Every time I listen to Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, I think thoughts like, “How hopelessly, unalterably dull a piece of music that is.” Then I progress to “How could Schubert have been that uninventive as a composer and still be thought of as a master?” Then I remember his songs and song cycles (all this happens in two seconds, you know)—which are actually wonderfully inventive and evocative. Some of his piano music is very good, too, but he was not the greatest symphonist or handler of large musical forces.
I then go to Schubert’s Oktett, D. 803. This is a one-of-a-kind piece that for me bests all other Schubert instrumental music. I had the opportunity play the Oktett when I was a far less mature musician, and the other seven were far more experienced than I—one fifth-year senior, a pro-level player and educator, college faculty, and members of the Arkansas Symphony. Now, although I would comprehend and experience this music much more deeply, I wouldn’t be able to make it physically. My chops were busted by about the 40-minute mark when I played the hour-long piece as a college freshman, and my endurance is not nearly as good now.
Schubert’s instrumentation is special, if not unique: clarinet, horn, bassoon, two violins, viola, cello, and bass. This is different from the instrumentation in any of Mozart’s partitas, divertimenti, notturni, serenades, etc., I believe. In the same era, Mendelssohn’s Oktett was composed for a double string quartet (no winds), and Beethoven’s Oktett is for all winds. Beethoven’s Septet uses the same instrumentation as the Schubert piece, minus one violin, but I don’t think it’s as rich a composition as Schubert’s. Schubert’s movement titles reflect tradition; after all, he was essentially a classicist who respected form and traditional structures. But the composer endows an adagio and slow introduction with such soul; a minuet, with such grace; and the allegros, with such effervescence and even spunk. The listener will be impressed with the linear writing, the textures, and the way instruments are featured and then move gracefully into supportive roles. It’s just a great piece of music.
Maybe some of you will soon enjoy a good recording of Schubert’s Oktett. (Here is a live one which uses some fairly quick tempos and which seems musically quite exemplary, based on a quick scan. Here is another one, taken from a reputable recording.) My own recordings include one on vinyl by the Chamber Music Society of the Lincoln Center and digital recordings by the Melos ensemble (which was founded to perform just this type of mixed strings/winds chamber works) and an ensemble that includes hornist Aubrey Brain, the father of the inimitable Dennis Brain.
Taking it further: if you like the chamber strings/winds mix as much as I do, consider also the Brahms Serenade No. 1 in D (woodwinds, horns, trumpets, timpani, and strings) and Serenade No. 2 in A (woodwinds, horns, and strings without violins). Then, if you want some fun 20th-century music with similar instrumentation, listen to Clark McAlister’s Lou’s Mountain Bread (wind quintet + string quintet). That suite is a hoot!