Schumann's irresistible Piano Quintet

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One has a special relationship with works you studied as a kid - over time they become like old friends. The joy that pervades this whole piece has been my companion since I “discovered” it in high school. The following program notes by the late Willard J. Hertz are used with the generous permission of the Portland Conservatory of Music.

David Yang, Artistic Director

Your Artistic Director (center top) in 1985 after his
first performance of the Schumann Quintet

Schumann’s Piano Quintet – a string quartet plus a piano – was the first work of its kind, and was made possible by the developing technical capabilities of that instrument. Mozart had written piano quartets (three strings plus piano), but the piano of his day could not produce the volume necessary to balance four stringed instruments. Schumann’s quintet, in contrast, was clearly intended as a new way to exploit the enriched resources of the piano, particularly in the hands of a virtuoso performer.

Schumann’s house, and his piano,
in Zwickau, Saxony (Germany)

More specifically, Schumann’s quintet was made possible by the introduction in the early 19th century of the damper or sustaining pedal – the pedal now ordinarily on the right. When depressed, this mechanism enabled the performer to continue the sound produced by keys that his or her fingers were no longer depressing. This substantially increased the sonority of the instrument, and facilitated the production of a smooth legato, arpeggios and wide-spaced chords. Beethoven was the first to profit from this innovation, and his example was followed by the romantics, whose piano music would be unimaginable on a pedal-less instrument.

The first measures of the piano part from a copy by Clara Schumann
in which she wrote: "To Mr Arthur Chappell with sincere pleasure
at having been able to contribute her musical share to the
25th aniversary [sic] of The Popular Concerts.
Clara Schumann. London 7th April 1884."

Schumann’s pioneer quintet became the model for a small but select line of similar works by other composers – Brahms, Franck, Dvorak, Fauré, Elgar, Reger, Bloch and Shostakovich. It is interesting that, with a single exception, each of these composers, including Schumann, wrote only one piano quintet, and that in each instance it was one of the composer’s most successful compositions. It was as if each composer felt challenged by the unique sonorities of this combination of instruments, but then found that it took only one effort to satisfy his curiosity about its possibilities.

Black and white print of Robert Schumann, head resting on hand
Robert, looking Romantic

Schumann’s quintet was written in 1842, the year in which, in one compulsive effort, he composed most of his major chamber-music compositions. Inspired by the great works of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, he first completed his three string quartets. He then had the idea of adding to the four instruments a piano part for his wife Clara, a renowned concert pianist, and the resulting piano quintet was written in less than three weeks.

Small oval portait of Clara Schumann
Clara Schumann (1819 – 1896)

The first public performance of the quintet took place in Leipzig the following January with Clara at the piano, and was an immediate success. Further, Berlioz, then a leading critic as well as a composer, was visiting from Paris, and his drum-beating for the work did more than anything else to establish Schumann’s reputation throughout Europe.

Today the quintet is generally regarded as the greatest of Schumann’s chamber-music works, and the peer of any for this instrumental combination. In a sense, it is really a piano concerto with a string quartet rather than an orchestral accompaniment. The piano carries one-half rather than one-fifth of the tonal body, and while it has no cadenza, its part is written out in a more brilliant virtuoso fashion than that of any of the strings. In many passages, in fact, the strings simply double one another in unison, octaves or simple chords. This blending of virtuoso piano writing with doubled strings, particularly when contrasted with characteristic Schumann moments of grace and charm, produces a degree of full-blooded excitement with few equals in the chamber-music repertoire.

Note by Willard J. Hertz used with the generous permission of the Portland Conservatory of Music


Link to Schumann Piano Quintet on Youtube
Schumann Quintet in Eb, Opus 44
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