Movement 1: Allegro brillante
Movement 2: In modo d'una marcia: Un poco largamente – Agitato
Movement 3: Scherzo: Molto vivace
Movement 4: Allegro, ma non troppo
In the following year, Schumann made his first serious attempts to master the art of composing for orchestra, completing his first two symphonies (the second of them was later revised, and published as his No 4), as well as an Overture, Scherzo and Finale, and the first movement of what would eventually become his Piano Concerto in A minor. Only with this experience behind him did he turn his attention to chamber music, in 1842.
As things turned out the first half of Schumann’s chamber year was not productive. This was altogether not an easy time for him and Clara: the conflicting demands of their respective professional lives were hard to reconcile, as is shown by an ill-fated tour on which they embarked in February. Schumann was clearly in a depressed state of mind, and had complained of feeling unwell before they left. (Day after day his diary entries contain the single word ‘krank’ (‘ill’), occasionally followed by the confession of a heavy bout of drinking.) In the event he returned to Leipzig after only three weeks, claiming that he could no longer neglect the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (the journal of which he was Editor), and leaving Clara to continue her travels, which took her as far as Copenhagen, until the end of April. Of the two musicians, it was she who was constantly in the limelight. She was still in her early twenties, but was already an internationally fêted keyboard virtuoso who, as a child prodigy, had counted such figures as Mendelssohn, Chopin and Paganini among her admirers.
No doubt Clara could have eased such tension as there may have been between herself and her husband during her 1842 tour by making a point of performing his music, but the fact is that she had very little of it in her repertoire, and chose instead other contemporary composers: Adolph Henselt, Mendelssohn and Liszt. Schumann was represented only by a single number from his Noveletten Op 21 (a collection dedicated to Henselt). However, Clara more than made amends in later years, and there was probably no single composition of her husband’s she performed more often than the Piano Quintet in E flat major Op 44, which has remained by far his most popular chamber work. During the Schumanns’ tour of Russia, in the early months of 1844, Clara played the Quintet repeatedly. On the first occasion, in Riga, after a night during which the couple had been kept awake by a party held on the floor above by the notorious courtesan Lola Montez, Clara noted in their marriage diary: ‘Matinee at Löbmann’s where I played Robert’s Quintet, which didn’t go especially well, however.’ Nor was she any more pleased with her subsequent performances of the work, one of which, she said, ‘went miserably’. Schumann’s early biographer Frederick Niecks even recounts an incident at a music-party which found Clara having to suffer the indignity of playing the Quintet while her husband beat time on her shoulder, to prevent her from hurrying.
The Quintet’s opening theme, with its wide-skipping melodic intervals, gets the work off to an exhilarating start, and one that provides the ideal foil to the movement’s second subject—a series of smoothly ascending and descending scales, passed from one instrument to another. The two themes provide the fabric of the entire piece, though neither actually features in what is perhaps its most strikingly original moment, which occurs immediately following the repeat of the movement’s first stage, and before the central development section can get under way in earnest. Here, Schumann introduces a mysterious passage in the minor—a series of slow descending scales punctuated by stabbing discords that seems curiously out of place in its context. It seems to have escaped the notice of commentators on the work that the same passage occurs in the slow movement, as a means of linking the first reprise of the march-like main theme with the agitated episode that follows it. In other words, what we hear at this point in the first movement is essentially a flash-forward. There are similar long-range anticipations from one movement to the next to be found elsewhere in Schumann: the slow introduction to the F sharp minor Piano Sonata Op 11 contains a melody that turns out to form the substance of the second movement; the coda of the scherzo in the late Violin Sonata in D minor Op 121 introduces a grandiose chorale that provides a pre-echo of the slow movement’s delicate theme; and in the closing bars of the ‘Spring’ Symphony’s Larghetto second movement the trombones solemnly intone an idea that foreshadows the theme of the scherzo that follows. Schumann’s notion of momentarily throwing a window open onto a later stage of the work is one that left an indelible mark on Mahler, whose symphonies frequently carry out a similar procedure.
The Quintet’s second movement is not quite a funeral march—its tempo is not broad enough for that—but it nevertheless conjures up a picture of a procession advancing with faltering steps. The various appearances of the march theme itself alternate with contrasting episodes, in the first of which, taking the music into the major, the violin unfurls a broad and expressive theme while the piano traces its outline in shadow. The second episode is dramatic and agitated, and by a remarkable stroke the viola enters with the main march theme before the turbulence of the episode has subsided.
The glittering Scherzo has rushing scales in both directions, punctuated by full-blooded chords. Schumann writes not one trio section, but two—the first offering a gentle canon between violin and viola, and the second being much more agitated, and fully scored. Perhaps the first trio’s undemonstrative counterpoint is Schumann’s means of preparing the listener for the more spectacular contrapuntal writing of the finale. The notion of lending weight to the finale by setting its entire first stage not only in the minor, but also in a ‘foreign’ key is one that Schumann could have learned from Mendelssohn’s early String Quartet Op 12—another work in the key of E flat major with a finale that sets off in a dramatic C minor. At the centre of Schumann’s piece, the assertive main subject is transformed into a quiet fugue theme, with a ‘tripping’ countersubject. This, it turns out, is a harbinger of the movement’s climax, where the music at last settles in the home key, and Schumann pulls out of his hat a double fugue whose two strands are formed by the main subjects of the Quintet’s first and last movements. It would be hard to think of a previous instance of a composer managing to combine the themes of his two outer movements in this way, and as a means of gathering the threads of the work together, and propelling it towards its exultant conclusion, it could hardly be bettered.
from notes by Misha Donat © 2009