Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Quartet in A Minor Op. 41, No. 1 (1842)

Quintet for Two Violins, Viola, Cello and Piano in E Flat Major, Op.44 (1842)


Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Quartet in A Minor Op. 41, No. 1 (1842)

"Schumann’s genius was so little appreciated that when he entered the store of Breitkopf and Hartel with a new manuscript under his arm, the clerks would nudge one another and laugh. One of them told me that they regarded him as a crank and a failure because his pieces remained on the shelf and were in the way. "

William Mason

American Pianist (1829-1908)

The Schumann hagiography has the year 1842 as "The Chamber Music Year," this being the year when he composed the Three String Quartets Op. 41, The Piano Quintet. Op. 44, the Piano Quartet Op. 47 and a piano trio that in its final form would become the Fantasiestücke Op. 88. However, some four years earlier Schumann was already thinking about writing string quartets and made a start on two opening movements for two quartets (which have been lost). In a letter from 1836 to his future wife Clara Wieck he writes: "The thought of the quartets gives me pleasure. The piano is getting too narrow for me. In composing now I often hear a lot of things that I can barely suggest. For instance, It is remarkable how I invent almost everything canonically and never discover the imitating voices until afterward, end for end, in inverted rythmns, etc." Despite his enthusiasm for the works in progress ("I can assure you they are as good as Haydn"), he put them aside and turned to other things. The year 1840 is known as "The Year of Song," and 1841 he devoted to symphonic works. 

The chamber music year began inauspiciously enough. He spent the early part of the year on tour with his wife Clara, one of the finest pianists of her time, during which time he became painfully aware of being in his wife’s shadow: Mr. Clara Schumann. He returned home to Leipzig while she continued the tour, his excuse being that he must return to his work on the Neuezeitschrift Für Musik (New Journal for Music.) "Schumann," writes Gerald Abraham, "spent this period of separation in deep melancholy which he tried to drown in beer and champagne, unable to compose, working at counterpoint and fugue, brooding over the possibility of taking Clara to America, while Wieck (Clara’s father: Schumann’s former teacher who had been doggedly against their marriage and was forced to accede ultimately only as the result of acrimonious lawsuits) spread a rumor that the pair had parted." From April to June, he spent studying the quartets of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. If we are to judge by the entries of his household book, he spent eight days on Beethoven quartets, while devoting almost a month each to Haydn and Mozart. 

He began the first quartet on June 4, then began the second on June 11, before the first one was complete. The third quartet was written between the 8th and 22nd of July. Between the completion of the quartets and the first rehearsal of the set on September 8, Schumann (who had abandoned the study of law for music) found himself in court, this time as a result of his journalism. A libelous onslaught against one Gustav Schilling, musical lexicographer, earned Schumann six days in jail (commuted to a five thaler fine). Fortunately, the rehearsal was a success and all three quartets were premiered on September 13, as a present for Clara on her 23rd birthday. Clara, always supportive of her husband’s efforts, praised them as "new and, at the same time, lucid, finely worked and always in quartet idiom." 

The esteemed theorist and composer Moritz Hauptmann wrote to the then reactionary composer Ludwig Spohr, "at David’s I heard three quartets by Schumann. His first, which delighted me immensely, made me marvel at his talent, which I had thought far from so remarkable. I had previously judged it from his earlier piano pieces, things so aphoristic and fragmentary, sheer reveling in strangeness. Here too there’s no dearth of the unusual in content and structure, but it is cleverly conceived and held together, and a great deal of it is very beautiful." 

The quartet opens with a hint of Bach rather than the Viennese masters, and is replete with the canons Schumann was so taken with, as well as his characteristic turns of melody. The second movement has been called by Schumann biographer Robert Haven Schauffler, "one of the most exciting and successful movements of its kind in the quartet literature." It gallops along like a wild horseman. The third displays Schumann’s gifts as a songwriter, while the fourth movement concludes the quartet with all the brio one would expect of this most romantic of Romantic composers.

1995-96 Season, Program IV, Sunday March 17, 1996

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When Schumann had just finished [the piano quintet] Liszt unexpectedly came to Leipzig and insisted on hearing it performed the same night. ‘It was difficult’, Clara Schumann told us, ‘to get four other artists to come at such short notice, but I took a cab and drove about Leipzig until I was fortunate enough to succeed in my mission.’ It was arranged that the performance would take place at 7 o’clock that evening at the Schumann’s house. At that hour all were assembled with the exception of Liszt, who did not make his appearance until 9 o’clock. The quintet was duly played, but at the end Liszt moved towards Schumann and, patronizingly touching his shoulder, exclaimed: ‘No, no, my dear Schumann, this is not the real thing; it is only Kapellmeister music.’ At supper afterwards Liszt indulged in some deprecatory remarks about Mendelssohn. Schumann immediately arose, seized Liszt by the shoulder, and cried, ‘How dare you talk like that of our great Mendelssohn!’ He then left the room. Liszt, the polished man of the world, also rose, and bowing low to Clara Schumann, said: ‘I am deeply sorry to have been the cause of such an unpleasant incident. I feel I am in the wrong place here; pray accept my humble excuses and allow me to depart.’

Edward Speyer: My Life and Friends. 1937,  from The Book of Musical Anecdotes by Norman Liebrecht

The Free Press. N.Y. 1985

(Schumann’s Piano Quintet) will always keep its place in the first rank of musical masterpieces. It claims the highest admiration not only because of the brilliant originality, and its innate power- which seems to grow with every movement, and at the end of the whole leaves the hearer with a feeling of the possibility of never-ending increase - but also because of its gorgeous beauty of sound, and the beautiful and well balanced relations between the pianoforte and strings.

Phillipp Spitta (1841-1894), whose principal literary work, J.S. Bach, remains a classic in the field.

 

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Quintet for Two Violins, Viola, Cello and Piano in E Flat Major, Op.44 (1842)

One of the most beloved of all chamber music works, Schumann’s Piano Quintet was sketched out in only five days. Begun on Sept. 23, 1842 (Schumann’s ‘Year of Chamber Music’) by Oct. 12 he had completed a fair copy of the score. The Quintet was dedicated to his beloved wife, piano virtuoso Clara Schumann, who made it a staple of her repertoire. Clara was a sought after performer, and though she championed her husband’s works, Robert often had trouble being the spouse of a celebrity – Mr. Clara Schumann. In one fit of pique, he cruelly criticized her performance of the quintet, angrily proclaiming that only a man could properly understand the work.

Schumann’s conception of what the addition of a piano to a classical string quartet should be is an entirely logical one. The piano is essentially a polyphonic instrument, its idiom utilizing at minimum two voices, more often three, four or more. Its addition to a string quartet should therefore be treated differently than the addition of an essentially single voiced instrument, say a viola, cello, clarinet, oboe or horn. Rather than carrying one fifth of the musical discourse, the piano and the string quartet as a whole are treated as equal partners.

The course of the first movement is the interplay of the brilliant opening statement and its derivations, with the lovely, coy cantabile melody. The remaining three movements all have the quality of character pieces about them. This would, by no means, be a negative comment to Schumann, who himself saw Bach’s Preludes and Fugues as lofty character pieces. The Second movement is marked "In the manner of a March," a somewhat spooky, not exactly funereal march, perhaps the prototype of a "Mahlerisch" March. In the third movement we have the nineteenth century version of "Raggin’ the Scale". The final exciting movement is packed with Schumann’s own style of contrapuntal devices, canons and fugato passages and a wild horseman or two.

Notes on this piece would probably not be complete with out the following anecdote concerning, some say the first, some say the second, performance of this work- take your pick. In any case, the story goes that Clara Schumann became ill on the day of the scheduled performance. As you listen to the work think about this: Schumann’s idol Felix Mendelssohn sat in for Clara, and sight-read the piano part. Mendelssohn was very impressed with the work, but suggested that Schumann re-write the second Trio in the scherzo movement – something livelier. Schumann obliged.

1998-1999 Season, Program V, Sunday June 6, 1999

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All original text on this page Copyright 1997 by Joseph Way