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Schumann’s creative impulses, unlike those of most other major composers, operated in extremely narrow ranges of repertoire at various times in his life. After composing primarily for the piano until 1840, Schumann turned in that year of his marriage (to Clara Wieck) to the writing of song, and only after the outpouring of emotions into some 120 vocal pieces did he make his first serious move into the symphonic realm, producing two symphonies in 1841 – No. 1 in B-flat (“Spring”) and No. 2 in D minor (revised ten years later and now known as No. 4).
Having taken on the full orchestra, Schumann then narrowed his instrumental thinking, and 1842 became a year of chamber music. In very quick succession starting in June, he turned out three string quartets, a piano trio, a piano quintet, and the present Quartet for the same forces minus one violin; both Quartet and Quintet are in the key of E-flat. It is staggering to realize that portions of the last two works were composed simultaneously – perhaps there was method to Schumann’s setting both pieces in the same key. However, the father bestowed distinct identities upon each of his E-flat chamber children, and if the Quintet emerged as the grander of the two, the Quartet is still a splendid specimen that is deficient only in a first movement that lacks somewhat in substance.
The work opens with a brief, slow introduction which is to reappear twice in altered form during the course of the movement, and which contains a four-note motif that is the basis of the Allegro’s main theme. This melody, along with a more energetic idea beginning with an ascending minor-key scale figure, dominates the movement. The Scherzo that follows, all staccato vigor and rushing fantasy imagery, is interrupted by two contrasting Trios, each of these shot through with the Scherzo’s impetuosity. The movement ends with a whispered echo of the first Trio.
The slow movement, beginning as if it had already been in motion before we come upon it, offers one of Schumann’s most achingly romantic melodies, breathed first by the cello. This theme embodies the 19th century’s quintessential longing and unrest with its major and minor sevenths reaching upward and then falling sighingly. Only Schumann could make such a melody. Toward the end of this Andante, the cello is instructed to tune its lowest string, a C, down to B-flat so that in the final measures it can provide a pedal bass in octaves of the tonic of the key. During these measures, the theme of the Vivace last movement is previewed softly and at a slow tempo in the manner of Schumann’s literary alter ego, the poetic dreamer Eusebius; when the theme fully emerges in the finale, it is set forth with the empathic vigor of Eusebius’ opposite, the volatile Florestan.
This main theme – a falling fifth and ascending sixth followed by sixteenth-note figures – is treated fugally, and later set into sharp contrast to more lyrical material. At movement’s end, three of the thematic ideas are combined ingeniously, a fourth theme returns fleetingly, and the work concludes with great thrust, with the piano continuing to play the dominant role it has been allotted throughout a composition that is aptly referred to as a piano quartet.
Orrin Howard, who annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving as Director of Publications and Archives, continues to contribute regularly to the Philharmonic program book.