German Romantic composer Robert Schumann [1810–1856] wrote just three string quartets. They all form part of a set, Opus 41. Before he started on these works, the composer spent time seriously studying the Mozart, Haydn and the Late Beethoven quartets. This was time well spent as there are hints of all of them scattered throughout his Opus 41.
The First Quartet is my favourite of the three. It consists of four movements, which was normal for the time. Only Beethoven seemed to bend the rules in this regard.
The first movement, the longest of the work, begins with a most poignant introduction as a solo violin melody is joined by a second violin in a fugue-like fashion. This wonderful harmonised melody is most alluring – it could have been written by Beethoven. An increase in dynamics with a few powerful, chordal strokes leads to a brief pause. A recapitulation is now heard, gently fading, followed by a pause which leads into another brief, but powerful passage. After a period of melodic development a charged rhythmic interlude is heard. Ensemble thrusts are answered by the first violin, and an earlier melody is developed at some length, again leading to further poignant sounds. Now we have a strutting, rhythmic section but it seems that each variation doesn’t last long before returning to the basic character. This duality is in force for some time and significant melodic development is heard. Nearing the end, the intensity lifts for one last time, followed by a fading shrill violin and two pizzicato cello notes to finish.
The next movement, by contrast, is the shortest of the quartet, and also the most energised. First a vibrant motif is developed at a brisk tempo. Interspersed with occasional thrusting sections, which are quite conversational, a strong sense of forward propulsion is achieved. Now a return to the opening feeling is started, then developed. This is followed by a very gentle passage with a most alluring, extended melodic section. Another recapitulation brings the movement to life once more. Interestingly, while it is very dynamic rhythmically, the playing is often quite soft. The end comes with a surprising flourish.
The third, adagio movement is introduced by a plaintive cello melody which allows the violins to craft melancholic melodies that are very beautiful – again they reveal some historical influence. This almost aching feeling is sustained for some time. A change in emphasis, but not in tempo ensues and a series of overlapping, ascending melodic lines portrays great feeling. Changes in harmony add to the melodic interest. Slowly the music builds, all the while the violins spin out wonderful melodies. The cello now comes to the fore and the violins respond to its contribution. The final stages are very subtle, sublime even – the music lets you down very gently.
A forceful opening to the final movement is characterised by a wonderful melody that threads its way through and around the strongly rhythmic ensemble. At times, the music resembles a footrace, although the earlier melodies are still heard frequently, in various harmonic guises. Shrill violins are at the core of this development – the playing at times seems virtuosic. Suddenly a sweet soft section emerges with long tones, but this is soon overtaken by the earlier histrionics and builds into a final flourish to conclude.
This piece seems to modulate between the Classical and Romantic styles. All things considered, I find it to be a very attractive work.
The version I reviewed is by an historical ensemble, the American Flonzaley String Quartet, which was formed in 1903 – you can hear the surface noise from the acetate pressings. I am very fond of historical quartets, which are freely available on several internet sites, due to the fact that these early performances are out of copyright, even in the US. Feel free to contact me if you have any interest in obtaining some of these quartets from earlier times.
Amazon US brings up 1,000 results for a “Schumann String Quartets” search. They are often paired with other composers on 2 or 3-CD sets. I’m going to recommend a version that I have myself – the Fine Arts Quartet on the budget Naxos label. All three quartets fit onto one disc and the playing is superb. If you enjoy these works there is also a Naxos disc containing string orchestra versions of Nos. 1 and 3. For some obscure reason they put No. 3 first. The First Quartet on this one is wonderful in the orchestrated format.
Listenability: Another brilliant first quartet from a Romantic master.