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To be aware of the endlessly troubled, morbidly unhealthy 46-year life of Robert Schumann is to be in awe of the remarkable endurance and courage that made possible his grand artistic accomplishments. Forever dogged by frequent lapses into some phase of mental illness, probably exacerbated by a mother who objected strenuously to her son’s abiding interest in music, and by the suicide of a sister, Schumann miraculously rose above the road blocks and ended by defining Romanticism in its post-Schubert glories. A troubled husband to his great pianist wife Clara, he fathered seven children, and by all accounts lived with manifold fears: madness, death, incompetence, etc. etc.
At the age of 20 he ended his misery as a law student by becoming instead a piano student of Friedrich Wieck, taking up residence in the professor’s home. There fate presented him with an obstacle to his becoming a concert pianist; in an effort to strengthen his fourth fingers through the use of a mechanical contraption of his own design, he damaged his hands irreparably. But on the positive side, he became interested in Wieck’s teen-aged daughter Clara, whom he finally married (only with court permission, since Papa Wieck opposed their union) on the eve of her 21st birthday.
The following several years Schumann seemed to fit perfectly the pattern of an obsessive-compulsive in his creativity. Until his marriage he had composed primarily for the piano. The marriage year of 1840 was to become the year of song, and only after the outpouring of emotions in some 120 vocal pieces did he turn his hand to compositions in other forms – symphony (two in 1841), then chamber music – three string quartets, a piano trio (later revised in different form), the piano quartet and piano quintet (1842). Of the latter two works, the Quintet was first on his writing table, though he started the Quartet before its almost-twin was completed (talk about double tasking!). Not surprisingly there is a family resemblance between the two pieces.
If the Quintet has somewhat exceeded its sibling in public favor, the Quartet needn’t slink in the shadows. It’s Schumann through and through, riding the crest of inspiration in every one of its elements. Beginning with a brief introduction whose identity is to prove of major import throughout the movement, the piano here defers to the three string instruments, which it certainly doesn’t do in the entire remainder of the work. Energy and assertiveness are predominant, though tenderness is certainly not neglected, nor is the piano’s natural tonal dominance.
The spirit of Schumann’s good friend (and sometime nemesis) Mendelssohn enters the Quartet on the quicksilver pianism of the Scherzo, a movement with two contrasting Trios, as in the Piano Quintet. (Mendelssohn’s unexpected death in 1847 was psychologically devastating to a man of Schumann’s delicate mental equilibrium.)
Those of us for whom romantic excess is not anathema relish the incredibly tender main theme of the third movement, a theme that is a natural foil for the cello and the violin. One of the most memorable moments occurs towards movement’s end when violin, then piano, ornament the theme played by viola. (Balanchine might have choreographed this movement – but he didn’t.)
A vigorous, exuberant finale is treated fugally at times, contributing that sense of scholarship that the largely self-taught Schumann exulted in.