performed by the Hagen Quartet, or below by the Cherubini Quartet
After Schumann’s vocal phase in 1840 and 1841, he turned to chamber music. All three quartets, collectively published under opus no. 41, as well as the piano quintet and quartet, opp. 44 and 47, respectively (both of the latter in E flat) came to the world in 1842. His three piano trios would wait until the late ’40s or early ’50s to be created, but he certainly found some inspiration from chamber music in ’42.
In fact, these three quartets (the first discussed here) were all completed within the same month, between June 4 and 22 of that year. While dedicated to Felix Mendelssohn, they were first performed on 13 September for Mrs. Schumann’s 23rd birthday. But not dedicated to her…
As with his symphonies, we might find that Schumann’s quartets are not necessarily odd, per se, but at least unique, with a clear understanding and appreciation for the masters of the form (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven), but working in a slightly different way. After speaking of Schumann’s perceived “pianistic” writing that some people accuse the composer of, and their “their total lack of dependence on the dry clichés of the mid-nineteenth century” Blair Johnston says at AllMusic:
The three Opus 41 string quartets, then, are entirely successful on their own terms, much as, though he was far more familiar with the medium, Schumann found himself compelled to discover fresh solutions to the compositional issues presented by the keyboard.
I love that so much, the statement of finding solutions to compositional issues. It says to us that composers are not just artists, they’re craftsman, problem-solvers, pioneers, inventors, and while Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven will always be The Holy Trifecta of string quartet composers, we can see Schumann’s individuality and artistry by taking a look at what some people consider to be “unidiomatic and overly-pianistic” string quartets.
The second, like all three of the set, is in four movements, and reaches a playing time of only about twenty minutes. Like some other ‘second’ works we’ve spoken about (Chopin and Beethoven piano concertos, as well as Beethoven’s op. 18 quartets), the quartet numbered second was actually written first. As Johnston points out, we have no Beethovenian introduction, and not really much of a clear-cut sonata form… we get a first theme that sticks with us for most of the movement, and while sparks don’t really fly between the crossed swords of contrasting themes, the beautiful violin melody that opens the work reaches a surprising level of intensity. For a five-minute movement, it’s not at any real loss, but despite the real beauty and lyricism of this violin melody and the heights it reaches, I don’t know that the movement could support its own weight if it were much larger.
Schumann really treads into the realm of Beethoven with a theme and variations movement, or actually ‘quasi variazioni’, and we’re in 12/8, with a triplet melody that’s not buoyant or bouncy or even undulating, but pleasant. I get the impression listening through this second movement that Schumann isn’t aspiring to plumbing any depths of humanity, building any kind of epic emotional landscape or changing lives with what he’s writing, but rather to write pleasant, attractive, supple music, and while it might not reach any top ten lists, it’s music that’s marked by tenderness and love.
While I maintain that this is still the case in the following two movements, the mood becomes a bit more lively, with a bouncy, humorous scherzo. After a kind of bubbly trio in 6/8, we have an almost bumbling-sounding cello take over in the trio, and the entire movement makes use of arpeggiation, scales and accents on the offbeats to add some humor to this work, and a bit of crunch, ending with subtle pizzicatos.
The finale takes a page out of the previous movement, immediately full of humor and crisp bounce. It’s quite funny, and brings a smile to the face. There’s nothing serious about this, to me. It’s like the composer winking at his bride, whom he so adores. There are plenty of runs and lightning-fast string work that come right out of the scherzo, but there’s also a contrasting softer theme that I swear is used in (or at least very similar to) the finale of his second symphony, (this part, specifically) and I love it! The finale despite its brevity, is perhaps the most exciting, fully-formed, complete-sounding movement of the entire work, wrapping it up with a sense of excitement and satisfaction.
So it might not be in any “top [number] greatest string quartet” list, but Schumann has his unique charms, and they do not detract from the work unless you have specific (different) expectations of what his quartets should be. I’d argue this piece is as easy to approach as any other quartet work you might hear from anyone, regardless of how he wrote the first movement or any of the other more pedantic details of the piece.
Clara is always around, isn’t she? Even in Brahms’s work. But that’s all of Schumann for now, and we won’t be seeing Brahms for about another month or so. Instead, like I said in the Berlioz article, we are jumping ahead to the 20th century for the real heart of this series, but not before getting to four revisit articles that I’ve been itching to get around to, so do stay tuned, because I’m excited!