String Quartet No. 1 in A minor, Op. 41, No. 1
Robert Schumann remained a diligent mu- sic student throughout his life, poring over the works of the canonical masters as well as reviewing the newest compositions for his music journal. He also tended to con- centrate on specific genres at particular times. His “chamber music year,” 1842-1843 (see below), got off to a bad start, as he felt snubbed and disrespected while travelling with his wife, Clara, on her tour of northern Germany and Denmark. He abandoned the tour before it ended, returning to Leipzig alone. There, he fought depression with counterpoint exercises and studied string quartets by Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn.
After Clara returned home at the end of April, they worked together at this study, and in June Robert began sketching a pair of his own string quartets, finishing them in early July. He had sketched some quartets several years earlier, but these were the first he completed, and a few weeks later he added a third to the set, which became his Opus 41, dedicated to his friend Felix Mendelssohn. All three were premiered as presents for Clara on her 23rd birthday, September 13.
The composer’s counterpoint work bore obvious fruit in the intense introduction to the A-minor Quartet, though it was written after the main body of the movement, very curiously a generally cheery dance in F major, with its own contrapuntal elabora- tions. (Beethoven’s Op. 131 may have been a model here.) The Scherzo is a spiky romp in A minor, with a contrastingly liquid Inter- mezzo in the relative major for its brief Trio section. The slow movement is an ardent love song in F major again, and the finale is a wild ride of driving rhythms and arresting sonorities that also summarizes the unusual harmonic strategy.
The influence of Haydn is apparent in Schumann’s obsession with a single prin- cipal theme in the first movement of his Second String Quartet, and Haydn also of- ten employed some of the imitative twists that Schumann uses so effectively here. For his slow movement, Schumann offers an offbeat – often literally – set of variations in A-flat major, formally rounded with the recall of the opening and an allusive coda. The athletic Scherzo is in C minor, with a funny little Trio in C major; Schumann combines these in a coda, which sets up the introduction to the whirlwind finale.
Like the finale to the First Quartet, this one consolidates and clarifies the harmonic ad- ventures of the preceding movements with vigorous joy in the doing. — John Henken