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Quartet in E-flat, Op. 47, for piano and strings

October 19, 2008 – Sheryl Staples, violin; Cynthia Phelps, viola; Carter Brey, cello; Warren Jones, piano

Schumann tended to explore specific musical genres extensively before exhausting the possibilities and moving on to other compositional styles. For instance, the years 1831-1839 were devoted almost exclusively to piano music, while in 1840 he composed over 160 songs, inspired by his happy marriage to Clara Wieck and their new life together in Leipzig. In 1841 he shifted his attention to large orchestral works, composing the first of his symphonies and his piano concerto. The year 1842 is often called Schumann’s “Year of Chamber Music.” In a six-month burst of creativity, he composed six major chamber works: his three string quartets, Op. 41, the Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44, the Piano Quartet in E-flat, Op. 47, and a Piano Trio in A minor, later to be published as Fantasiestücke, Op. 88.

The Piano Quartet in E-flat was composed between October 25 and November 26, 1842. Dedicated to Count Matvei Weilhorsky, an amateur cellist, it features prominent solos for that instrument, especially in the lyrical third movement. Schumann’s true source of inspiration, however, was the brilliant piano playing of his beloved wife, Clara. Throughout the work, the piano is kept constantly in the spotlight. Clara was delighted by the quartet, writing in her diary, “[It is] a beautiful work, so youthful and fresh, as if it were his first.”

A model of concision, the quartet blends Schumann’s deeply Romantic spirit with his fascination for the contrapuntal techniques of his Leipzig predecessor, Johann Sebastian Bach. The first movement begins with a mysterious, floating, four-note figure, which is suddenly transformed into a crisp, forward-moving gesture that permeates the remainder of the movement. This compact motive combines with a flowing, linear melody in the piano that interacts conversationally with the three string instruments.

The Scherzo is nimble and hushed, emulating the atmosphere of the scherzos of Felix Mendelssohn, Schumann’s Leipzig friend and colleague. Two contrasting trios are laced with elements of the initial Scherzo, giving the short movement a seamless, unbroken motion.

The song-like third movement is the emotional high point of the quartet, beginning with a sweetly yearning cello melody that evolves into a tender duet with the violin. A chorale-like middle section forms a bridge back to the initial melody, now heard in the viola and surrounded by a filigree of violin figuration. The ethereal coda features a sustained “pedal” B-flat in the cello, which, unusually, requires the cellist to stealthily tune the instrument’s low C string down a whole-step.

The Finale demonstrates Schumann’s skill as a contrapuntalist. Clara and Robert often enjoyed analyzing Bach’s fugues together. In the early 1840s she wrote in her diary, “Our fugal studies continue. Every time we play one it becomes more interesting for me. Such great art with such a natural flow.” The final movement of the Piano Quartet reflects their passion for Bach, beginning with a vigorous fugue subject in the viola, which is then taken up by the piano and finally the violin. (The absence of a cello entrance of the fugue subject may be intended to give the cellist additional time to retune the lowest string.) The polyphonic writing quickly gives way to freely lyrical and syncopated passages that recall themes from the earlier movements. The final movement displays Schumann’s unique blend of Romantic and Baroque textures and brings the work to an exuberant conclusion.

By Michael Parloff

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