Schumann: Fantasiestücke, Piano Trio & Piano Quartet
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Movement 1: Sostenuto assai Allegro ma non troppo
Movement 2: Scherzo: Molto vivace Trio I [Tempo I] Trio II [Tempo I]
Movement 3: Andante cantabile
Movement 4: Finale: Vivace
The work begins with a slow introduction foreshadowing the main theme of the Allegro. Its sense of groping towards the light surely reflects Schumann’s study of the string quartets of Beethoven; and as Beethoven so often does in his late quartets, Schumann brings back the introduction at its original slow tempo at strategic points during the later course of the movement—notably at the end of the exposition and immediately before the coda. These moments of reflection punctuate what is one of Schumann’s most exhilarating pieces—one whose pulsating rhythm scarcely lets up for an instant.
The fleeting Scherzo is scored with Mendelssohnian lightness. Its delicately ‘tripping’ subject recurs intermittently in both trio sections—the first of them based on a smoothly moving phrase which clearly arises out of the same impulse as the Scherzo’s subject; the second, a thoroughly Schumannesque series of sustained, syncopated chords in contrasting registers. At the end, the music disappears in a puff of smoke, with the aid of the first trio’s initial phrase.
If the slow movement is perhaps less impressive than its counterpart in the Op 44 Quintet (its main melody, with its sequential ‘drooping’ phrases, can sound uncharacteristically mawkish), it is more than redeemed by the broad theme of its fine middle section, as well as by the striking originality of its coda. For the latter passage the cellist is instructed to tune his lowest string down a whole-tone, to B flat, on which note he provides a long drone which lends an air of hushed mystery to the closing bars of the movement. Above this note, the remaining players pre-echo, as if in slow motion and from afar, the opening motif of the finale. This was the first but by no means the only occasion on which Schumann carried out a procedure of this kind. At the end of the slow movement of the ‘Spring’ Symphony (No 1) the trombones solemnly anticipate the theme of the following Scherzo; while the Scherzo of the late Violin Sonata in D minor Op 121 culminates in a triumphant chorale whose theme is immediately taken up at the start of the delicate intermezzo-like third movement. These moments have little to do with so-called ‘cyclic’ form; rather, they represent a deliberate attempt on Schumann’s part to dissolve the boundaries between successive movements.
It is likely that Schumann borrowed this idea of anticipation from the famous link between the slow movement and finale of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto, where the soloist plays a halting version of the rondo’s theme above a long-held note on the horns. The Intermezzo and finale of Schumann’s own Piano Concerto are similarly linked, except that—perhaps in order to avoid too close a parallel with the Beethoven—Schumann constructs his join out of a reminiscence of the opening movement’s theme rather than a premonition of the concluding rondo. Schumann’s procedure, especially as exemplified in the ‘Spring’ Symphony, seems to have left a deep impression on Mahler, who retained a lifelong fondness for momentarily opening a window onto a forthcoming movement.
Schumann’s finale is largely based on a running contrapuntal ‘tag’ of the kind Beethoven had used for the colossal fugue of his ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata. The motif is preceded by three skipping chords—an extrovert reminiscence, perhaps, of the Scherzo’s second trio; while a second theme features a series of lyrical, syncopated phrases on the piano, very similar in shape to one of the variations from the slow movement. Such ‘hidden’ elements of unification may not have been consciously intended on the composer’s part. They were, rather, his reward for concentrated inspiration: by the time he completed this work, on 26 November 1842, he had produced no fewer than five large-scale chamber works in the space of six months. In the circumstances it is hardly surprising that as the year drew towards its close, Schumann was suffering from what he described as ‘nervous weakness’. He continued to compose, but clearly he found it an effort. ‘Worked on the Trio—too much—feeling unwell in the evening’, reads a diary entry for 16 December. The trio in question was a much less ambitious project than his preceding works, and Schumann managed to finish it before the year was out. All the same, he appears not to have been satisfied with it, and he almost certainly took the opportunity to make revisions prior to its publication in 1850. Its modest scope led him to issue it under the title of ‘Fantasy Pieces’.
from notes by Misha Donat © 2000