Robert Schumann, 1810-1856
1842 is often called Schumann’s “Year of Chamber Music” because, in a stretch of nearly unbroken intensity, he produced three string quartets, a piano trio, the innovative piano quintet and the piano quartet. The Piano Quartet in E-flat-major, Op. 47, was the last of the series, written within a few weeks. Given Schumann’s affinity for the piano, it is not surprising that the piano quartet and piano quintet remain the most popular his chamber works. Of the two, the quartet, with is smaller ensemble, is naturally more intimate, its character more delicate, and its chamber textures more pure.
The quartet is a wonder of clarity and concision with traits that seem reflect Schumann’s mode of production: it is a concentrated and highly integrated composition that manages to naturally incorporate all the key features of Classical chamber music. Melody, counterpoint, motivic development, heart-felt song, quicksilver scherzo, and even fugue come together for a rich composite that pays tribute to Schumann’s ardent study of the masters: Haydn, Mozart and especially Beethoven.
The first movement sonata opens with a slow, spacious introduction. Not a mere prelude to the sonata, it reappears to announce the development section and it announces the four-note motive that dominates the movement. The sonata is vivid due to its amazingly simply but effectively contrasting themes. The first is the four-note motive, stepping down then up. The second is rush up the scale and an arpeggio rushing right back down. Despite their simplicity, each is shaped into pleasing melodic content and woven into a fluid dramatic narrative with crisp and forceful energy.
The Scherzo is perfectly nervous, nimble, and spiced with the urgency of the minor mode. Most scherzi are strongly sectional in their form and are experienced as such. Schumann created his with the same fluid integration that characterizes the whole quartet. Though it even has two trios rather than the usual one, the movement comes off as a nearly seamless continuity of unbroken motion. Both trios are laced with elements of the scherzo, which, by virtue of the form, recurs three rather than two times. More like a brief rondo, the entire movement rushes swiftly by, suddenly gone, unexpectedly.
The third movement Adagio checks all the slippery energy of the scherzo and nestles down into a gently flowing song. Here is Schumann the Romantic pouring out a tender duet aria between cello and violin that seems to speak so clearly without using single word. The middle section of this da capo aria takes a strong cue from Beethoven by deepening the romantic into the sacred with a spare hymn that hallows with its graceful simplicity. All momentum nearly stops until the spell is broken by the return of cello song, made more poignant by new figurations in the violin and piano, and a new melancholy in the tonality. The movement ends with what is simultaneously a well-matched ethereal coda (recalling the hymn) as well as a prefiguration of the final movement’s theme.
Schumann ends this delicious quartet a blaze of motion and rich counterpoint. It begins as though it were a regal fugue from a Baroque suite but it soon moves into a second theme of swaying classical lyricism. Schumann achieves of fluid blend of textures that is neither strictly polyphonic nor homophonic but the indescribable hybrid that is the sine qua non of the classical masters. As if to complete his organic survey of chamber features, Schumann emphasizes the polyphonic, using the drive and swelling complexity of fugal imitation for an exciting and deeply satisfying close.
Consider one final aspect of Schumann’s craftsmanship: the three-note motif of the finale is essentially an abbreviation of the four-note motif of the first movement. This is yet another example of integration, concision and a clever way to give the last movement its distinctive final thrust.