Schumann, Robert: Op. 47, Piano Quartet

For Robert Schumann, 1842 was the ‘chamber music year’. After writing mostly for piano until 1839, and then mostly for voice in the year 1840, Schumann began to extend his ambitions toward larger forces and forms.  So in 1841 he wrote two symphonies, and in 1842 (with more symphonies in mind), Schumann spent a year studying counterpoint and exploring the public-private genre of chamber music.  That year, a fruitful though rather turbulent time at the Schumann/Wieck household, Robert Schumann composed three String Quartets, the Piano Quintet, the Phantasiestücke , and the Piano Quartet, Op. 47.  All these chamber works have the curious quality of seeming simultaneously grand and intimate — something in-between a song and symphony, just as his biography would suggest — and they were all Romantic in the purest sense that the word can be meant.

The Piano Quartet and Piano Quintet are curious to consider as a matched pair: one larger, one smaller; one tending toward the public, one tending toward the private. But there is more on this inward/outward theme within each piece: whereas the Piano Quintet strikes its own balance between the epic and the lyric, the Piano Quartet finds its mood between something one might might merely call ‘inward’ and something one might cheerfully call ‘sentimental’.  The Romantic depths of the Piano Quartet are especially clear in its third movement, whose theme dissolves through such a sequence of keys that the cello must be tuned downward (in real time) to make room for a resolution at its end.  Or one might compare the noble choral writing in the outer movements with a third movement scherzo that seems to disappear into a ghost-story (see also: Brahms’ C major trio).  

There’s often something almost frustrating about Schumann — one can feel the need for study, the need for Romantic genius, the need for release, perhaps even the (unmet) need for fame.  And sometimes his tools can seem a bit rough (for example, the simple re-doubling of melodies to make them temporarily exciting can be almost silly.  ‘No wonder he was studying counterpoint’, you might think). But then, so often, there will come some surprise resolution, some compositional tear or revelation, that will make the whole thing make sense, as though he (and we) had been looking for something else anyway.  The tools that seemed rough a minute before seem only to have been a cage; and Schumann, in the meantime, will have found some way out that made it all not only worthwhile, but something one is grateful to have heard and followed in every detail.