Piano Quintet

Robert Schumann

Piano Quintet in Eb major

Op. 44

Recommended recording

Curated by Mary Elizabeth Kelly, Primephonic Curator

About this work

Robert Schumann's Quintet for piano and strings in E flat major has earned a place of distinction among piano quintets, one of only a handful, including Johannes Brahms' one entry in the genre and Dvorák's Op. 81, that are known to more than just a few performers. Although Schumann's merits as a composer of "pure" instrumental music have been debated, no astute listener can doubt that the E flat Quintet is the product of a most fertile musical imagination -- fresh, buoyant, and inventive. 1842 was Schumann's year of chamber music (as 1840 was that of song): after producing three string quartets, Schumann decided to make a happy synthesis of his recently acquired fluency with strings with the piano -- his native instrument.

The first movement, marked Allegro brillante, commences with a joyous idea that rings in the ear long after the texture has taken on a gentler tone. Musings on this idea are set against characteristic pianistic figurations before the second theme, a dialogue between the cello and viola takes over. The development section begins in the key of A flat minor in the piano; fragments of melody are voiced by the other players as the music moves into distant harmonic regions. The incessant modulation and fragmentary thematic development are interrupted by a bold assertion of the previously heroic primary theme. Schumann makes little change to his exposition over the course of the recapitulation, only altering a few bars to make the necessary harmonic change, with the second theme, as expected, being re-cast in the tonic instead of dominant.

In modo d'una Marcia, Un poco largamente is the marking of the following movement, throughout which a funereal atmosphere predominates. The stark, mysterious primary melody is introduced by the first violin against a background of simple quarter notes in the lower registers of the other four instruments. The appearance of the second theme is like a welcome ray of sunlight. Schumann's rhythmic palette produces a magical feeling of stasis, as if time were standing still for a short, delicious time. It was at Felix Mendelssohn's urging that Schumann decided to throw away the A flat major section that originally served as the middle portion of this strange movement and replace it with the furious onslaught in F minor (agitato) that posterity has come to know. Perhaps the most striking moment in the movement is the remarkable, purposefully crass statement by the viola (on its C string) of the primary theme in the middle of the violent triplet activity. The movement is rounded off by a return of the initial march theme, now with a thudding pizzicato background that dies away into a quiet, otherworldly chord.

The Scherzo, molto vivace, makes a reprise of both the tonality and vivacious character of the first movement. Schumann chooses to use two separate trios in the movement, the first a lyrical canon, and the second a more robust section in A flat minor.

Some of Schumann's instrumental works conclude with movements that are but pale shadows of their brothers and sisters; not so with the Piano Quintet. From the opening attack in C minor (the percussiveness of which has caught many unwary listeners quite off guard) to the final glorious, contrapuntal conclusion, the composer imbues this finale with so piquant a mixture of verve, anxiety, and delicate lyricism that it must surely be considered the crowning glory of the entire work. The double fugue that serves as a coda to the finale. Taking as its one subject the principal theme of the first movement and as its other subject the principal theme of the last movement, it forms a noble and fitting conclusion.