Program Notes

Robert Schumann
Born June 8, 1810, Zwickau: Died July 29, 1856, Endenich, Germany
Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Opus 44

Before his long-awaited marriage to the piano virtuoso Clara Wieck in 1840, Schumann had mainly focused on composing solo piano music, but his nuptials prompted a three-year stint of intense creative energy during which he began working in the realms of voice and instrumental ensembles instead. Schumann completed more than 150 songs in 1840, many of which expressed his devotion to his beloved wife, and this period is often referred to as the composer’s “Year of the Song.” 1841 was his symphonic year and saw the composition of the First and Fourth Symphonies as well as many smaller works for orchestra, and 1842 was the year of chamber music, which resulted in the completion of all three Opus 41 string quartets, the Piano Quintet Opus 44, the Piano Quartet Opus 47, and the Phantasiestücke pieces for piano trio, Opus 88, each written in the space of only a few weeks. Schumann worked on the Piano Quintet between September and October of 1842, sketching out the piece in five days and then devoting two weeks to preparing the score. A private premiere was scheduled for December 6, 1842, but Clara suddenly fell ill and it appeared that the concert would have to be cancelled. Luckily, the brilliant Felix Mendelssohn stepped in and offered to try playing the difficult piano part at sight, ultimately saving the day. Mendelssohn’s influence on the Piano Quintet would be more than just rescuing the premiere. His suggestions to Schumann after the performance led the composer to revise the piece substantially, and it was Mendelssohn’s idea to add a second trio to the scherzo. The public premiere of the Piano Quintet was held at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on January 8, 1843, this time with Clara at the keyboard. She called the piece “splendid, full of vigor and freshness” and championed it throughout her career. 

The Piano Quintet was revolutionary for pairing the piano with the string quartet. Other configurations of ensembles for strings and piano already existed – for example, piano trios or piano quintets using violin, viola, cello, and double bass – but the string quartet was the most prestigious of the chamber ensembles and had resisted major experimentation. Giving the piano and string quartet equal footing in a substantial piece of chamber music had yet to be attempted, but Schumann’s creation was unique and compelling, establishing the piano quintet as a quintessential Romantic genre. Compositionally, Schumann devoted much of 1842 to studying the use of counterpoint in the works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, resulting in the many canon and fugue passages found throughout the Piano Quintet. In addition, the piece shows strong similarities with one of Schumann’s favorite works, Schubert’s Piano Trio #2, sharing the key of E-flat major, using a funeral march in the second movement, and in the cyclical nature of the finale. The Piano Quintet hints at its Classical models, with learned fugues and a clear formal layout, but Schumann’s Romantic spirit is also abundantly present as well in his adventurous uses of harmony and the impulsive musical character. The first movement is marked “allegro brilliante,” describing perfectly the brilliant, extroverted music found within. The first theme bounds exuberantly across a series of bold leaps to arrive at a dolce second theme introduced as a duet between viola and cello. The development features the piano in one of many concerto-like passages of virtuosic display. The second movement is a calm and solemn funeral march. An agitated section breaks the tranquility briefly, but soon returns to the original mood and an ethereal final chord. The third movement is a bubbling scherzo that sets each instrument in opposition as they race up and down through scales, as if engaged in a game of tag. The first trio is a lyrical canon for violin and viola while the second trio is an assertive display of perpetual motion with impassioned accents. The most notable aspect of the ambitious fourth movement is its brilliantly constructed fugues. Schumann starts by using the first theme of this movement as the fugue subject and then adds the first theme from the first movement to create a glorious double fugue that transcends all possible expectations.

  • program note by Heike Hoffer