The year 1842, for ROBERT SCHUMANN, was the ‘chamber music year’ during which he composed three String Quartets, Op. 41, nos. 1-3, the Piano Quintet, Op. 44, the Piano Quartet, Op. 47, and the Phantasiestücke, Op. 88. This productivity, however, in no way indicates calm – quite the opposite, in fact. Schumann’s manic-depressive creativity has been well documented, and in addition to his psychological bent, he and Clara (his famous-pianist wife) were having difficulties ironing out the relationships between their complex personal and professional lives. (Their relationship was not really in question, only the form which it should take, and the effect their choices might have on the delicate psychology of each.) In the spring of that year, Clara left for a two-month tour, and Robert took a counterpoint class, each in considerable disquiet.
The study of counterpoint paid immediate dividends in all the chamber music of that year. In the last movement of the piano quintet, Schumann brings together the themes of the first and last movements in an enormous double fugue, bringing an extraordinary epic unity to the entire piece. Yet the piece, despite its breadth, never loses a sense of dialogue between the epic and lyric.
This sort of bringing together of opposites (which was, happily and sadly, so important to Schumann’s outlook) is extremely successful in the piano quintet, and takes many forms. The quintet was built at a time when chamber music was very much in between the private ‘chamber’ sphere and the public concert-hall sphere, and its scale is particularly suited to the average of the two venues. It is large enough to be sublime, but small enough to be emotionally approachable. Since its premiere in 1844 it has been one of Schumann’s best-loved works.