Schumann String Quartet in A minor, Op. 41 no. 1

performed by the Fine Arts Quartet

I’ll be referring to this article on AllMusic by Blair Johnston throughout my little discussion below. I didn’t really know much about the work, and hadn’t learned much about it from anywhere else, but that is telling in itself. Make a list of three or five or even ten (or more?) string quartet composers, real contributors to the quartet repertoire, and I highly doubt anyone would put Schumann on the list. A few people I’ve talked to recent hadn’t even realized Schumann had the op. 41 quartets to his name. It seems they are rather rarely played.

Johnston describes why people seem to feel that way:

For many years it was customary to dismiss these three works as unidiomatic and overly-pianistic, claiming that their composer’s relative unfamiliarity with string instruments precluded him from creating works of much merit.

Johnston begins the article by saying “1842 was the year of chamber music for Robert Schumann (as 1840 and 1841 were the years of song and of orchestral music, respectively),” and that this foray began with the string quartets. He also makes mention that no. 1 “was actually the last of the group to be finished (though there is good evidence that Schumann worked on all three more or less simultaneously).”

Again, my unfamiliarity with later works precludes my ability to speak about this work in greater detail, but Johnston makes an interesting point that the three quartets of op. 41 were “clearly conceived of… as a single large-scale composition,” referring to the keys of each work, which he lists as A minor, F major, and then A major. That’s interesting, but I don’t know (yet) what potential arc or possible unifying narrative there might be across the three.

There is another aspect, though, of the quartet, that did strike me as interesting, and one which Johnston cites as another suitable reason to put this A minor quartet as the first in a cycle of works, and that is the lengthy introduction that we have to the work, in A minor and marked andante espressivo and actually labeled as ‘introduzione’.  There’s a fugal nature to the way each instrument enters with the same theme.

I remember sitting in a rather busy café reading this as I tried to eat my lunch, holding the score and flipping pages with one hand, eating with the other. Still not perfected, but what struck me was a bit of the strangeness of this movement (and the rest of it, as we shall see). We do have A minor at the beginning, but once the actual  introduction is over, we’re no longer in A minor, but F major. I don’t have perfect pitch or anything, but I can read a key signature and we go from all naturals to one flat… F major! Johnston claims this as “reflecting in miniature the tonal organization of the entire Opus 41 cycle.” I’ll take his word for it, for now.

The other thing about the first movement is that while it’s not the classical era and we don’t need the kind of giant flag-waving signaling of the transition to the second subject of a sonata-form movement, the second subject is only slightly removed from the opening content. So those are some interesting things about the nuts and bolts. What about how it sounds?

The 2/4 introduction is somber, perfectly heart-wrenching and pained, quite beautiful. There is what seems like a theme being established, a double-dotted eighth note in first violin, but it disappears in favor of some more flowy lines and a dramatic fermata that starts to turn our 2/4 into 6/8, transitioning to the first subject. The allegro marking and the dramatic climax makes me feel like we’re getting ready to blast off into something amazing, but both themes are soft and mildly bouncy, the second with more bounce and crunch, and we’re almost six minutes into a less-than-ten-minute movement before we’ve reached what appears to be the development (after the repeat of the exposition). I wouldn’t say the quartet writing is strange or odd or ineffective, but I’m also not a string player or anything. As I continued listening I found the work somehow different, something I couldn’t put my finger on, but also still quite enjoyable. That’s for sure.

By far the longest of the movements of this quartet ends quietly and serenely, and we reach the placed-second-scherzo with its intermezzo rather than trio in the middle. This movement immediately strikes my interest. It’s dramatic and crunchy, sweepingly agile. Something else that stands out is that we are still in 6/8 time, the meter that occupied most of the opening movement. But the scherzo is marked scherzo and not minuet for a reason: it has real vigor, different from the light bounce of the preceding movement. There’s a weird thing here with a B part to the scherzo proper that seems to call back on content (or at least atmosphere) of the preceding movement. The intermezzo is odd, in cut time measured at the bar (half note at 152!) but still feels lilting. In any case, it’s a fun, crunchy, and effective movement, and I think anyone who criticizes the quartet should try to explain why or how this doesn’t work. I rather like it. It turns out,though, that potentially my favorite movement is also the shortest, and it brings us to the slow movement, marked adagio.

The adagio is just that, quite slow, rather spacious, and begins with a gesture from the cello, echoed a few bars later by first violin. Johnston says of the beautiful melody in the third movement that it “is an obvious descendent of that from the Adagio of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.” I’m not sure I would have made that connection or even that I hear it, but it is a beautiful movement, with the two main instruments, first violin and cello taking turns at singing really beautiful melodies. The cello takes over while first violin accompanies in pizzicato, and the almost serenade-like section leads to something a little more lively and stirring. Oh, there are also half notes with four dots. Check them out:

more pained stuff starts here

 

half notes with four dots!

As with the second movement, I feel like while this one might have some of its oddities (or ‘uniquities’) it works… So if it works, then what’s the problem? We finish in the key in which we began, F major.

The final movement brings us that explosion that I thought we’d get after the intro of the first movement. It’s marked presto, and returns us to A minor, but it’s not dark or any of those other cliché minor-key words. It’s a little bit furious and brimming with energy. Johnston says that “like the first movement, one cannot say that there is a true second theme in this wild sonata-allegro, but rather a continuous unfolding of elements from one basic idea.” This is great. I don’t mind it, because however the content is organized and presented, it’s exhilarating. There’s variation, texture,  contrast, drama, and then suddenly this slamming on of brakes for a moderato section in A major, only ten bars long, leading to a twenty-something-bar passage of just chords, like a wedding procession or something. It seems quite odd to stick this in there, but it’s beautiful nonetheless, and an interesting way to jump back to the opening content of the movement and wrap things up in A major.

All in all, I have to say it’s a vibrant, engaging work, with plenty of personality. Maybe it’s not the most traditional of quartets, but I don’t know why it hasn’t seen a revival of interest of any kind. The quirks of the piece aren’t negative, just different. Think of the reaction you’d have if you barged into a room of your house, maybe coming home after work, and all the furniture was rearranged, and walls painted. You’d likely have a start, and many questions. It may strike you as extremely odd, but not because it is odd, only because it’s not the way it was before. But you might rather quickly come to enjoy the new brown-paper-colored walls and rearranged furniture.

I scratched my head with this work the first few times I listened to it, and found even more interesting things when looking at the score, but I suppose…. if you can deviate from the norm, or do strange or new things, and they work, then more power to you. I’m interested to dig into parts II and III of this quartet trilogy, but that won’t happen any time soon. There are other more pressing matters. Stay tuned.

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