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8.570151 - SCHUMANN: String Quartets Nos. 1-3
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Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
String Quartets, Op. 41 Nos. 1-3

 

Robert Schumann is in many ways typical of the age in which he lived, combining in his music a number of the principal characteristics of Romanticism, as he did in his life. Born in Zwickau in 1810, the son of a bookseller, publisher and writer, he showed an early interest in literature and was to make a name for himself in later years as a writer and as editor of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, a journal launched in 1834. His father encouraged his literary and musical interests and at one time thought of sending him to study with Weber, a proposal that was abandoned with the death of the latter, closely followed by the death of Schumann's father.

Schumann's career now followed a more conventional course. In 1828 he entered the University of Leipzig, where his attention to his studies was as intermittent as it was to be the following year at Heidelberg. He was eventually able to persuade his mother and guardian that he should be allowed to study music under the well-known piano teacher Friedrich Wieck, whose own energies had been directed with some intensity towards the training of his own daughter Clara, a pianist of prodigious early talent. Schumann's ambitions as a pianist, however, were frustrated by a weakness in the fingers, whatever its true cause, and his other musical studies had, at the very least, lacked application. Nevertheless in the 1830s he wrote a great deal of music for the piano, often in the form of shorter, genre pieces, with some extra-musical literary or autobiographical association. There was an affair with one of Wieck's pupils, later broken off, but by 1835 he had begun to turn his attention to Clara Wieck, nine years his junior. Wieck had good reason to object to the liaison. His daughter had a career before her as a concert performer and Schumann had shown signs of instability of character, whatever his abilities as a composer might be. Matters were taken to an extreme when resort was had to litigation, in order to prevent what Wieck saw as a disastrous marriage.

It was not until 1840 that Schumann was eventually able to marry Clara, after her father's legal attempts to oppose the match had finally failed. The couple married in September, remaining first in Leipzig, although journeys took place for concert appearances by Clara, generally accompanied by her husband, whose position was of lesser distinction. In 1844 they moved to Dresden, where it seemed that Schumann might recover from the bouts of depression that he had suffered in the earlier days of marriage. Here again no official position seemed to offer itself and it was only in 1849 that the prospect of employment arose, this time in Düsseldorf, where Schumann took up his position as director of music in 1850.

Mendelssohn had enjoyed an uneasy relationship with the Düsseldorf authorities, and Schumann, much less skilled in administration and conducting, proved even less able to cope with the difficulties that arose. The pressures on him led to a complete nervous breakdown in 1854 and final years spent in an asylum at Endenich, where he died in 1856.

If Schumann's earlier compositions had been chiefly for the piano, 1840 has been described as a year of song, with an enormous number of vocal compositions. After his marriage he was urged by his wife to turn his attention to larger forms, a piano concerto and the first of his symphonies. He had earlier suggested that he should tackle the form of the string quartet and made some attempts which remained only as rough sketches of what was planned. It was only in 1842, the year of his piano quartet and piano quintet, that he began serious study of the late Beethoven quartets and the quartets of Haydn and of Mozart, during a period at home in Leipzig, after he had left his wife to continue her concert tour of North Germany without him. This continued at the keyboard with Clara Schumann, after her return in April, together with a study of counterpoint. It was Beethoven who provided the most significant model in a form that had increasingly seemed out of place in its contemporary musical context. Schumann noted his attempt at writing a quartet on 2 June and during June and the following month completed all three. They were published the following year with a dedication to his friend Felix Mendelssohn. The first quartet had its first public performance at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig on 8 January 1843, the second on the same occasion, and the third on 18th January.

The Quartet in A minor, Op. 41, No. 1, starts with an A minor Introduction that demonstrates the result of Schumann's recent and continuing study of counterpoint, as instrument after instrument enters in imitation. A brief modulation leads to the unexpected key of F major for the following Allegro, its principal theme stated by the first violin, leading to a series of fugal entries initiated by the viola. Secondary thematic material and the repetition of the exposition is succeeded by a central development, which starts with a reminiscence of the first subject and again includes a contrapuntal element derived from the secondary material. The movement ends with a recapitulation. The A minor Scherzo brings obvious reminders of Mendelssohn and the movement includes a C major Intermezzo, an alla breve in place of the usual triple-metre trio of the traditional form, before the return of the Scherzo itself. Introductory bars with a strong implication of D minor lead to the first violin melody of the F major Adagio, while the accompanying viola arpeggio figuration suggests the piano, Schumann's own instrument, which is seldom far away. The melody is passed to the cello and there is a contrasting central section before the principal melody returns. The original key of A minor is restored in the sonata-allegro form final Presto, with its extended use of broken thirds and scale patterns in its secondary material. There is a shift to A major and a largely chordal Moderato is soon replaced by the more energetic pace that had marked the opening of the movement.

The Quartet in F major, Op. 41, No. 2, as so often with Haydn, has a monothematic first movement. The theme is announced by the first violin, and heard fragmentarily from second and first violin before a passage of modulation into the dominant key. A few bars of contrapuntal imitation lead to a closing section in C major, with a fragment of the main theme heard from the second violin, before the contrapuntal linking passage returns to lead to a repetition of the exposition. It is this element that opens the central development, before the main theme is heard, with this and other elements of the exposition interwoven before the final recapitulation section. The slow movement starts with a 12/8 A flat major theme. The syncopation of the first variation is followed by a first violin melody over a running accompaniment. This leads to an antiphonal version between the violins, in semiquavers that are briefly shared with the lower strings, which first have offered a largely pizzicato accompaniment. The next variation, marked Molto più lento, has the first violin in double-stopped sixths, at first underpinned by a cello chordal tonic-dominant drone. This is succeeded by a version marked Un poco più vivace, now in 4/4, followed by the theme again and a coda which devolves principal activity to the first violin and viola. The C minor Scherzo has a C major Trio which finds room for syncopation, a feature of the coda, which brings both Scherzo and Trio briefly together. The last movement is in sonata-form, its two subjects duly contrasted, developed and recapitulated before the closing section.

The Quartet in A major, Op. 41, No. 3, starts with a seven-bar introduction, marked Andante espressivo and making telling use of the interval of a descending fifth, the interval that starts the first subject of the following Allegro and is heard in the second subject, foreshadowed first by the cello. The same interval returns in the central development and duly introduces the recapitulation, and is heard again, either in its original form or in inversion, in the other movements. The F sharp minor second movement that takes the place of a scherzo starts with a capricious Assai agitato, followed by a contrapuntal section, the first of four variations, the second of which is characterized by its opening rising fifth, the third marked Un poco adagio presents the theme and the fourth Tempo risoluto, finally resolves into a coda in F sharp major. The slow movement begins with an expressive theme entrusted to the first violin, leading to a second theme accompanied by a dotted second violin figure, material that is duly developed and recapitulated. The dotted rhythm returns in the opening of the final Allegro molto vivace, followed by a passage of contrapuntal imitation, before the return of the framing principal theme in an extended rondo, its contrasting but related episodes including an F major Quasi trio section that makes its return in E major and then in A major, before it is superseded by the principal theme.

Keith Anderson

 


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