Part of Wieck’s arguments against Robert was the charge that he could not support a wife and family financially. Refuting that with marketable music was one reason why 1840 became Robert’s year of song, an almost exclusive focus for him in the months before and after his marriage. But Robert tended to work in obsessive bursts of inspiration, and in like manner 1841 was the year of the symphony and 1842 became the chamber music year. He completed the three string quartets of Op. 41 in less than two months that summer, and the Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44, was finished in less than six weeks, followed by the Piano Quartet, Op. 47, wrapped up in November. Before the year was over, he had also written the Phantasiestücke, Op. 88, for piano trio.
The piano parts of these works were written for Clara, of course – the Quintet is dedicated to her. She was ill, however, when the Quintet was first performed at a private party in December 1842, so Felix Mendelssohn played the highly demanding part at sight. Clara was the pianist for the first public performance, on January 8, 1843, at the Gewandhaus.
Robert’s only models for the seeming natural combination of piano and string quartet were the Mozart piano concertos with optional reduction of the orchestra to string quartet. (Clara’s own Piano Concerto, her Op. 7, also had a chamber reduction of the accompaniment, to a quintet.) Robert’s Quintet does include concerto elements in the mix, but it is not all about the keyboard instrument, as the strings remind us with their warm expansions and decorations of the marching main theme of the opening Allegro brillante. And it is the cello and viola that take the lead in the transformation of that theme into the sonata-form movement’s more dancelike second subject.
The minor mode is never far way in this work, and the second movement is a soft funeral march in C minor. Like the Scherzo that follows, it has two contrasting episodes. First is a broad tune in half notes in the first violin and cello, with an unsettled, murmurous, three-against-four rustling in the other parts. The second, apparently suggested by Mendelssohn at that private first performance, is an agitated explosion in F minor dominated by the piano, which returns not to the main march, but to a variation of the ripe C-major episode, before the march returns to close the movement somberly.
The main element of the dashing Scherzo is a rushing scale, slightly askew metrically. The first of its trios touches on the main theme of the first movement; the second is a manic dance in duple meter that whirls through some sharply contrasting keys.
The finale returns the music to its marching mode, with rondo episodes that revisit the harmonic adventures of the March and Scherzo. To close, Robert creates an astonishing fugal coda that brings back the expansive opening theme of the first movement.