The Kennedy Center

Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44

About the Work

Robert Schumann Composer: Robert Schumann
© Paul J. Horsley

Today the piano quintet — keyboard with string quartet — seems almost as standardized as the piano trio, but it was not always such. In fact the piano quintet as genre was a late development in the realm of chamber music, and thus we must remind ourselves that when Schumann wrote his quintet in 1842, no other composer of significance had yet attempted such a thing. The piece is strikingly assured for all that, and it formed an important foundation for the future: Without it we might not have the quintets of Brahms, Dvorák, Fauré or Shostakovich.
Schumann's quintet came along as part of a maturing process, in a period when the composer was attempting to spread his musical wings from the orgy of solo piano music with which his composing career had begun. For most of his career, in fact, Schumann tended to fixate on a single genre and work it until its possibilities seemed virtually exhausted: After the piano music of the 1830s came the "year of song," 1840, when he penned more than 100 miniature masterpieces in a few months. Then in 1841, on the urging of his new wife, Clara, he tackled the symphonic muse, completing three symphonies and part of a piano concerto in a feverish rush of creativity. Yet another important genre remained to be mastered: that of chamber music.
The early spring of 1842 found the composer in a depressed state. While Clara was on an extended concert tour —she was one of Europe's leading solo pianists —the emotionally fragile Robert brooded alone in Leipzig, assuaging his gloom with a careful study of the string quartets of Haydn and Mozart. He cheered up immediately when Clara returned in late April, and in only a few weeks he had completed the three vibrant string quartets, Op. 41, which demonstrated an understanding of the four-part writing fundamental to Classical string quartet style. He then embarked upon a wholly new genre, adding piano to the string quartet of old — a texture that permitted him to synthesize his mastery of Romantic keyboard style with a newly acquired symphonic approach to texture ("Robert's compositions are all orchestral in feeling," Clara had once said) and with the melodic mastery that the song-year of 1840 had engendered.
The result was an auspicious synthesis. The Quintet had its first performance that October at the Schumann's home, with Clara on piano joined by the Gewandhaus Quartet. They repeated the work in a public performance the following January. The first movement (Allegro brillante), notable for its headstrong, nervous energy, also reveals a wealth of song-like melodies— such as the cello's lyrical second theme. "In the manner of a march," writes the composer over the second movement; as marches go it is a morose one, however, sad enough for a funeral. The galloping Scherzo:Molto vivace seems partly to have inspired the scherzo of Brahms's Piano Quintet — a work that in fact looks back at Schumann's model in a number of respects. The final Allegro, ma non troppo is a modulatory structure that ends with a nod to the contrapuntal style of J.S. Bach, whose music Schumann had revered and studied throughout his life.