Piano Quartet

Robert Schumann

Piano Quartet in Eb major

Op. 47

About this work

Begun on October 24, 1842, the Piano Quartet in E flat major, Op. 47, was completed within a month. Schumann played through the work with friends early in December, but it was not published until 1845. Although Schumann started composing the Quartet in E flat major only a few days after completing the Quintet in E flat major, Op. 44, the two works could not be more different; the (slightly) later work is actually the more traditional, especially in Schumann's use of counterpoint.

Schumann seems to have been more comfortable with the intimate instrumentation of the chamber works than he was with the full orchestra. However, the chamber works, aside from the string quartets, are piano driven, with the strings either following the keyboard part or acting in opposition to it as a unified choir. In the Piano Quartet in E flat major, Op. 47, thematic links between movements are heard, as well as Schumann's tendency for protracted development of material, resulting in large structures.

Schumann's arrangement of the movements (the Scherzo is second, the slow movement third) suggests a nod to Beethoven, as does the opening of the first movement, Sostenuto assai - Allegro ma non troppo. The introduction is static, non-thematic, and is reduced to its primary melodic feature -- a falling/rising whole step -- at the very beginning of the Allegro tempo. The second part of the introduction appears a moment later. The overall effect is similar to that of Beethoven's String Quartet, Op. 127, also in E flat major. The staccato scales accompanying the broad secondary theme reflect Schumann's increasing study of counterpoint, while the large-scale sonata form is extended through development in the recapitulation.

The Scherzo boasts two trio sections. The second of these features Schumann's predilection for destroying the bar line through syncopation so strong and consistent that the listener feels the downbeat in the wrong place. The piano is chiefly responsible for this "illusion," with block chords on the third beat of the measure that are tied through the first two beats of the next. The rhythm is reinforced in every other measure by a similar chord in the three string instruments, the entire passage providing an effective contrast to the nimble eighth notes of the Scherzo section.

Marked Andante cantabile and in ternary form, the third movement is notable for a passage in which Schumann directs the cellist to tune the instrument's C string down a step to B flat, enabling it to play a B flat pedal tone under staccato scales in the viola and violin. Throughout the opening section, the piano's role is chiefly accompanimental, providing repeated chords to support the melodic material shared by the cello and viola. At the shift to G flat major of the central section, however, the piano part becomes more linear. When the opening section returns, the melody appears in the viola part over a more active piano accompaniment and below a fleeting violin obbligato line that anticipates the first idea of the Finale.

Schumann's Finale, in sonata form, opens like a fugue. After an introductory outburst, the viola states the lively theme, which is next taken up by the piano on the dominant, and next by the violin. In a free rondo form, the Finale features a lengthy closing section, often referred to as a coda, that is a developmental extension of the primary material.