Schumann, Piano Quintet, Op. 44

February 8, 2018

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44 (1842)

Robert Schumann Robert Schumann is one of the quintessential Romantic figures of the 19th century. He grew up with twin loves for literature and music and became a great composer and well as a great literary figure, one of the most esteemed and insightful musical commentators of his time. He fell passionately in love with Clara and fought a two-year legal battle against her father to win her hand in marriage. Schumann almost manically attacked the great genres of music and composed, in concentrated fits, piano works, art songs, symphonies and chamber music amassing a formidable catalog of masterworks before madness set in. Schumann struggled with nervous disorders that erupted into aural hallucinations, depression and a suicide attempt resulting in his institutional confinement where he languished for two years before dying, unable to see Clara until his very last day. Literature, music, love and madness make for a rather fantastic life story, but what remains for us is his incredible music.

The Piano Quintet comes from Schumann’s “year of chamber music” where, in 1842, he composed string quartets, piano trios, a piano quartet and broke ground on an essentially new ensemble for string quartet and piano, the most powerful combination of instruments in all of chamber music. This is not only Schumann’s greatest chamber music work, it is one of the greatest chamber works of all time, of such majesty and artistry that it must always come last in a program where it seems to obliterate all music before or since with its singular power. It’s epic four-movement design includes a large first-movement sonata, a powerfully dark slow movement based on a funeral march with the flavor of Schubert, a rollicking scherzo with two trios and a mighty, ambitious finale.

Chief among many of its fascinating aspects worth appreciating is its use of “recall” creating what is called a “cyclic” form. The bold opening theme in the first movement reappears in the last movement in an apotheosis of dramatic development as it combines in countermelody with the finale’s own theme in a magisterial fugue recalling a tradition of high musical triumph going back through Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Mozart to J. S. Bach. The piano writing itself is on a high order of achievement and virtuosity and the public premiere would feature none other than pianist Clara Schumann to whom Robert dedicated the quintet. Inaugurating a new ensemble/genre of chamber music, Schumann’s piano quintet greatly influenced subsequent epics by Franck, Brahms, Dvořák, Dohnányi and Shostakovich among the most noteworthy.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.