One of the many curiosities of ROBERT SCHUMANN’s composing career is that he spent the early 1840’s in a fairly systematic sweep of the major genres of German classical music. 1840 into 1841 was for lieder, 1841 for symphony, 1841-42 for chamber music, and 1843 for oratorio. There are a few breakdowns in this breakdown, but the overall pattern of his output is quite clear. Making it all the more clear is that Schumann initiated the ‘chamber music’ subset of his system with string quartets – a form which, after Haydn and Beethoven, had become the core of the genre.
As a critic, Schumann had opined that a string quartet ought to be conversational in tone, giving voice to all members, and ought not only to build on historical models (especially Beethoven), but also take on its own direction, continuing the expansion of the form. The String Quartet in A minor, Op. 41 no. 3, practices what he preached, and notwithstanding the extremely high regard he had for the sublimity of Beethoven’s late quartets, he wrote his quartets on a very human scale.
Discussions of the contemporaneous Piano Quintet and Piano Quartet often hinge on the liminal status of chamber music in Schumann?s time between the public and private realms. Perhaps because of the absence of piano, but more likely for its adherence to his stated objectives, Schumann’s string quartets come across as more private than those works – they can feel a little like studies, in the best sense: studies for him and Clara and friends (any intimation of ‘étude’ should be banished) in private. Insofar as they strike a balance between public and private like the works for ensemble with piano, it is on a strictly non-symphonic scale: they are pieces for his own compositional development; pieces for a discerning public; pieces for pleasurable study; and pieces for the continuance of a grand tradition.