Piano Quintet (Schumann)

Robert Schumann, lithograph by Josef Kriehuber, in 1839, three years before the composition of his Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44.

The Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44, by Robert Schumann was composed in 1842 and received its first public performance the following year. Noted for its "extroverted, exuberant" character, Schumann's piano quintet is considered one of his finest compositions and a major work of nineteenth-century chamber music.[1] Composed for piano and string quartet, the work revolutionized the instrumentation and musical character of the piano quintet and established it as a quintessentially Romantic genre.

Composition and performance

Clara Schumann (née Wieck) in 1838. Robert Schumann dedicated the piano quintet to Clara, and she performed the piano part in the work's first public performance in 1843.

Schumann composed his piano quintet in just a few weeks in September and October 1842, in the course of his so-called "Chamber Music Year." Prior to 1842, Schumann had completed no chamber music at all with the exception of an early piano quartet (in 1829). However, during his year-long concentration on chamber music he composed three string quartets, followed by the piano quintet, a piano quartet, and the Phantasiestücke for piano trio.

Schumann began his career primarily as a composer for the keyboard, and after his detour into writing for string quartet, according to Joan Chisell, his "reunion with the piano" in composing a piano quintet gave "his creative imagination ... a new lease on life."[2]

John Daverio has argued that Schumann's piano quintet was influenced by Franz Schubert's Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat major, a work Schumann admired. Both works are in the key of E-flat, feature a funeral march in the second movement, and conclude with finales that dramatically resurrect earlier thematic material.[3]

Schumann dedicated the piano quintet to his wife, the great pianist Clara Schumann. She was due to perform the piano part for the first private performance of the quintet on 6 December 1842. However, she fell ill and Felix Mendelssohn stepped in, sight-reading the "fiendish" piano part.[4] Mendelssohn's suggestions to Schumann after this performance led the composer to make revisions to the inner movements, including the addition of a second trio to the third movement.[4]

Clara Schumann did play the piano part at the first public performance of the piano quintet on 8 January 1843, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Clara pronounced the work "splendid, full of vigor and freshness."[4] She often performed the work throughout her life.[5] On one occasion, however, Robert Schumann asked a male pianist to replace Clara in a performance of the quintet, remarking that "a man understands that better."[5]