Movement 1: Andante espressivo – Allegro molto moderato
Movement 2: Assai agitato – Un poco adagio – Tempo risoluto
Movement 3: Adagio molto
Movement 4: Allegro molto vivace
Schumann’s quartets were first played through by an ensemble led by Ferdinand David, who had been appointed by Mendelssohn as leader of the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra some six years earlier. (It was for David that Mendelssohn was to compose his famous Violin Concerto.) Shortly after completing the three works, Schumann wrote to the publishers Breitkopf & Härtel: ‘We have played them several times at David’s house, and they seemed to give pleasure to players and listeners, and especially also to Mendelssohn. It is not for me to say anything more about them; but you may rest assured that I have spared no pains to produce something really respectable—indeed, I sometimes think my best.’
In addition to his study of string quartets by Haydn and Mozart, Schumann had reacquainted himself with the quartets of Beethoven, and their influence can be felt at the outset of his String Quartet in A major Op 41 No 3, in the notion of prefacing the opening movement with a slow introduction that foreshadows the shape of the Allegro’s main subject. In that introduction, however, it must be said that the music speaks with a distinctly Schumannesque voice. Both the ‘drooping’ melodic interval with which it begins (it is heard unaccompanied, as a distant echo of its former self, in the bar immediately preceding the onset of the Allegro), and the manner in which it is harmonized, provide the springboard for the movement’s main theme. As for the Allegro’s second subject, it is again thoroughly characteristic: a smoothly moving cello theme whose phrases reach their apex on the weak second beat of the bar. Not only does the theme itself appear to contradict the prevailing metre, but the simple accompaniment from the remaining players is written persistently off the beat, so that the whole passage sounds disturbingly dislocated.
Schumann will have found no shortage of pieces in variation form to study in the string quartets of Mozart and Beethoven. But while those composers invariably restricted their use of variations to either the slow movement or the finale, Schumann, in a highly original stroke, casts his Scherzo as a set of variations. Its agitated, breathlessly syncopated theme gives rise to four variations, as well as a coda in which the music suddenly takes wing in the major. The second variation shows the intensive contrapuntal studies Schumann had undertaken a number of years earlier bearing fruit; while the third is a gentle siciliano whose key of F sharp minor, as well as its ‘Neapolitan’ tinges (leaning on the flattened second degree of the scale) may call to mind the profound slow movement of Mozart’s A major Piano Concerto K488.
Following his lyrically intense slow movement, with its contrasting episode unfolding over an insistent march-like rhythm in repeated notes, Schumann presents a finale of jaunty insouciance. This is one of his strictly sectional pieces, with recurring episodes creating a patchwork design rather similar to that of some of his piano cycles of the 1830s. One of those episodes makes a return to the key and agitated atmosphere of the Scherzo second movement; while another, curiously labelled ‘quasi trio’, is a more relaxed affair—a theme of courtly elegance that seems deliberately to recall the gavotte from Bach’s French Suite in E major. At the end, the main theme’s bouncing rhythm is elaborated to form a grandiose coda.
from notes by Misha Donat © 2009