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How Schubert's cello quintet is like a classroom discussion

St. Olaf College AP Photo/The Northfield News, Jerry Smith

I teach students for a living. Throughout the day I speak about the joys of poetry, the complexities of environmental activism, and the range of writing that may — or may not — appeal to young minds. Mainly, though, I inhabit the world of discussions. In the classroom we debate and argue, seek understanding, and confront the inner workings of our own minds. During classroom discussion, music is often on my mind.

Sonority is what I'm often after in the classroom: a deep, resonant, full-bodied sound that lays out lessons, instructions, or other avenues for developing minds in learning. At its best, sonorous conversation often fills my classroom with lively topics about controversial issues: the Keystone XL pipeline; ISIS; the rhetoric of right-wing evangelicals; and climate change. After a day of teaching, my brain wanders towards Schubert.

Franz Schubert was a teacher too. In his journals he noted the drudgery of teaching and his indifference towards his students — but the opening movement of Schubert's String Quintet in C Major D. 956, commonly known as the "Cello Quintet," seems to mirror my own classroom and reminds me of rich discussion.

The opening chord of the "Cello Quintet" is mysterious, with endless possibilities — where will it go? — as if a teacher were saying, "Today, class, we will..." and leaving the statement hanging, waiting to unveil the surprise. Finally, the first violin takes the lead, sending the listener on her way through a series of responses by the four other voices (violin, two cellos, and viola), as if students are asking questions about what the homework was and what they're doing in class on any given day. The violins enter a back-and-forth with the three lower voices. The tension builds. The teacher asks the question: "What do you think about..."

Then, the music soars. The viola trying to get its point across, the violins working as one, complementing each other in the higher register, and the cellos playing descending scales, trying to get a word in edgewise.

After two minutes of tension we land. We know where we are. E-flat major. And for fourteen minutes this listener experiences a type of sublimity that Schubert executes masterfully. The theme is pulled apart, flows between voices, and creates a sonorous conversation between the five instruments. It's discussion at its best.

Eventually, the first violin brings the movement to an end with slight ornamentation before the final agreement that discussion is over. Though the piece continues for three more movements, the first — nearly twenty minutes long — is comprehensive, cohesive, and filled with luxurious harmonies. The listener, after a long day in the classroom, feels filled, nourished, and reaffirmed regarding why we learn: to better know our deep human experience.

Taylor Brorby is a writer, environmentalist, and GLBT rights activist. He received his M.A. in Liberal Studies from Hamline University in 2013, and is the current writer and communications consultant for the Dakota Resource Council.


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