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String Quartet No. 3 in A, Op. 41/3

January 14, 2024: Goldmund Quartet

In reviewing a prizewinning quartet by Julius Schapler in 1842, Schumann observed that “the quartet has come to a standstill. Who does not know the quartets of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and who would wish to say anything against them? . . . the later generation, after all this time, has not been able to produce anything comparable. [Georges] Onslow alone met with success, and later Mendelssohn.” The canonization of the quartets of the great Classical masters left the composers of Schumann’s age feeling inadequate. Schumann and Brahms were each to publish three string quartets but only after suppressing several earlier ventures in the genre. Schumann apparently began one quartet in 1838 and three more the following year; none of these survives, unless certain ideas from them reappeared in the Opus 41 quartets of 1842.

Schumann’s method of approaching the level of the Classical masters was to study their quartets intensely, as recorded in his household diary in the spring of 1842. The diary also reveals his depressed mood at the time, associated with his wife Clara’s extended concert tour; he mentions drinking too much and his inability to compose. Suddenly, however, his creative powers took over with such force that five shorts weeks after beginning the first of the Opus 41 quartets on June 4, all three were completed. He announced them to his wife Clara as “three children, barely born, and already completed and beautiful,” and arranged for a private performance of all three for Clara’s twenty-third birthday on September 13. The individuality of these quartets is remarkable in light of their having been composed one on top of the other.

The Third Quartet takes up the key in which the First Quartet ended. The descending interval of a fifth that opens the A major Quartet’s brief slow introduction is often associated with Clara, but also may owe something to the opening of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, op. 31, no. 3. The falling fifth also introduces the main theme of the Allegro molto moderato and makes an appearance in the second theme. This interval (or its inversion as a rising fourth) assumes a prominent role throughout the work.

The F-sharp minor second movement, instead of a scherzo, takes the form of a theme and variations, though the theme is not revealed until after three variations. The theme when finally presented, appears as a canon between the first violin and the viola, at a slower tempo. This and other contrapuntal sections in the Opus 41 Quartets reflect Schumann’s self-prescribed study of fugal techniques during the gloomy period of Clara’s absence. The passionate slow movement gives off a restless quality owing to its frequent changes of key. The dotted rhythm so prominent in the second violin part is then featured in the last movement.

Schumann’s inspired finale combines the form of a rondo with that of a scherzo and trio, and includes certain elements of sonata form. Its scherzo-like features are welcome as Schumann had earlier used a theme and variation movement instead of a scherzo. The movement particularly contrasts the two keys of A major and F major, again taking up the discussion of these two keys that concerns the entire Opus 41 “cycle.” The key of A major is positively affirmed in a brilliant coda.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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