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1841 began happily for Schumann, spending the first months of the year on tour with his celebrated pianist-wife, Clara. But he was becoming painfully aware of being always in her shadow and he decided to return to their home in Leipzig – ostensibly to work on his publication Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. “Schumann,” writes Gerald Abraham, “spent this period of separation in deep melancholy which he tried to drown in beer and champagne, unable to compose... brooding over the possibility of taking Clara to America, while Wieck (Clara’s father: Schumann’s former teacher who had been opposed to their marriage...) spread a rumor that the pair had parted.” From April to June, Robert studied the quartets of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven.
Four years earlier he had already been thinking about writing quartets, completing several sketches or movements and writing to his future wife, Clara: “The thought of quartets gives me pleasure. The piano is getting too narrow for me. [Although he would later devote nearly two full years to writing music for solo piano.] In composing now I often hear many things I can barely suggest. For instance, I now invent almost everything canonically and never discover the imitating voices until afterward... in inverted rhythms, etc.” But the enthusiasm was short-lived. He put the quartet sketches (since lost) aside in favor of songs, piano music, and, in 1841, chamber music.
The first quartet was started on June 4, the second on June 11, before the first one was complete. The third quartet was written between July 8 and 22. All three were premiered on September 13, as a present for Clara on her 23rd birthday.
Of the occasion, the theorist and composer Moritz Hauptmann wrote to fellow composer Ludwig Spohr, “at David’s [violinist Ferdinand David, Mendelssohn’s friend and foremost interpreter] I heard three quartets by Schumann. His first [the present work in A minor], which delighted me immensely, made me marvel at his talent. I had previously judged it from his earlier piano pieces, things so aphoristic and fragmentary, sheer reveling in strangeness. Here too there’s no dearth of the unusual in content and structure, but it is cleverly conceived and held together, and a great deal of it is very beautiful.”
The A-minor Quartet opens with suggestions of Bach (some listeners hear late, mystical Beethoven as well) – perhaps the canonic studies previously referred to – in evidence. The second movement has been called by Schumann biographer Robert Haven Schauffler “one of the most exciting and successful movements of its kind in the quartet literature. It gallops along like a wild horseman. The third displays Schumann’s gifts as a songwriter, while the fourth movement concludes the quartet with all the brio one would expect of this most romantic of Romantic composers.”
- Herbert Glass