Thursday, April 30, 2020

Uplifting Music from Troubled Times: Schumann's Piano Quintet

“This week’s dose of great music aims to inject exuberant energy into our currently subdued quarantined existence. I hope that Schumann’s uplifting Piano Quintet featuring Stuart Malina at the piano will brighten your weekend.” – Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director, Market Square Concerts

You've seen those memes about Newton discovering calculus and formulating the law of gravity while being quarantined during the Plague Year 1665, so you're probably asking yourself what have you been doing with your time? (All I know is I'm not writing the Great American Novel or even the Great American Piano Quintet during the Coronavirus Pandemic). Still, keeping healthy is important, and listening to great music, music that moves us, inspires us, entertains us, whether it makes us think and ponder the Meaning of Life or just makes us tap our toes, is a good way to get our minds off the constant barrage of news and the fear it creates (as if the virus weren't scary enough), even if only for a little while.

So, to brighten your day – especially given much of the weather we've had the past 144 days of April showers – let's begin the Month of May with this performance of Schumann's justifiably beloved Piano Quintet, so full of energy and sunlight, recorded during Summermusic 2014 with pianist Stuart Malina (as we continue this year celebrating his 20th Anniversary with the Harrisburg Symphony) joined here by violinists Peter Sirotin and Leonid Ferents, violist Michael Stepniak, and cellist Cheng-Hou Lee.

(As usual, the blog format reduces the size of the videos to fit the dimensions of narrow columns. To view full-screen, click on the box-like icon in the lower right corner of the video once it begins to play.)

1st Movement: Allegro brillante

2nd Movement: In modo d'una marcia, un poco largamente

3rd Movement: Scherzo

4th Movement: Allegro ma non troppo

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Many people think a composer sits down and writes a piece of music because he (or she) is inspired and when feeling happy, writes happy music; or feeling sad, writes sad music. If only it were that easy...

Much of Schumann's music would be considered “uplifting” or “delightful,” helping us through difficult times, perhaps taking us away from our anxieties whether as an escape or a chance to “recharge our batteries.” Yet, every time I listen to the Piano Quintet especially, I'm amazed it exists at all! Pessimistic though it may sound, it may remind us every silver-lining has a cloud which in turn might give us hope that, from the deepest turmoil, we can overcome what seems insurmountable.

If you've read the earlier post about his A Major String Quartet, you're aware how Schumann's life-story was dominated by his mental health, what we now call “bipolar disorder,” formerly known as “manic depression.” His father and sister dealt with it – his sister committed suicide when Schumann was a teenager – and Schumann himself would end his life in an asylum, following his own suicide attempt, where the kind of crude treatment he received might have done little to mitigate the pain and fear of his final years.

Who knows if he'd been treated with modern medication whether his music would've been any different? One thing is certain: the circumstances under which it was created would've been very different.

Much of the time, he did not compose just because he was no longer troubled by this cloud of depression: the manic swing in the opposite direction is what usually triggered a creative phase that often stretched until it wore itself out and he sank back under the clouds again. Whether anyone was aware it was a disease, these constant “mood swings” were also a trial for those around him, especially his wife, the great pianist Clara Schumann who had to balance being a wife and mother (they had seven children; an eighth was born shortly after Schumann's suicide attempt) with her own concertizing.

The “Year of Chamber Music” – from June, 1842, to January, 1843, when Schumann composed three string quartets, the Piano Quintet, the Piano Quartet, and several smaller pieces which he would later revise – came at a time following his marriage to Clara in September of 1840, a happy time which inspired a year devoted almost exclusively to songs; and a productive symphonic year in 1841 (his 1st Symphony, the “Spring,” and what eventually became his 4th Symphony; plus two other large-scale symphonic works, one he did not complete and the other which he only published later).

At the time, Schumann was well known more as a writer about music than as a composer of music. He had trained to become a concert pianist, studying with his future wife's father (a very long story in itself), but due to an injury, he was no longer able to play the piano and so turned more seriously to composition. Before then, he had written a great deal of solo piano music, ostensibly for himself to perform, but this was not very different from what many concert-pianists of the day would have been doing.

Schumann – or at least his ego – was also bothered by his wife being more famous than he was: he was, essentially, “Mr. Clara Schumann,” the husband of the great pianist...

In early 1842, the Schumanns had gone off together for one of Clara's extended concert tours across northern Germany when it really hit him, this being in the shadow of his wife, so after a month he returned to Leipzig and his job as journal editor while Clara went on to Copenhagen without him. During her month-long absence, unable to compose and dealing with a “deep melancholy” he tried drowning in “beer and champagne,” he studied fugue and counterpoint and examined quartets by Mozart and Haydn, then later those by Beethoven. Meanwhile, Friedrich Wieck, his former teacher and current father-in-law who had bitterly opposed his daughter's marriage, managed to spread the rumor they’d separated and were heading for a divorce. Thoughts of a tour of America – which Robert dreaded and didn't help his depression – were shelved when Clara returned in late-April.

By June 2nd, he was sketching “quartet essays” and two days later began the 1st String Quartet. On the 11th, he began the 2nd Quartet even before the first one was finished. In between the 2nd and the 3rd Quartet, not begun until July 8th, he wrote a scathing article about Clara’s ex-boyfriend Carl Banck and his new composition (it was so nasty, Schumann did not include it later when he re-published most of his articles) and also ended up in a libel case which netted him a 6-day jail sentence which was commuted to a fine. The 3rd Quartet was finished on July 22nd, seven weeks after he’d begun work on the first. And none of them reflect the despondency and anxiety he'd experienced only a few months before.

During August, there was a bit of a summer vacation - the Schumann’s second child would be born nine months later - then back to Leipzig for rehearsals of the three quartets in early September.

On the 23rd, then, just ten days after the quartets' private premiere for Clara's birthday, he began work on the Piano Quintet which, after sketching it out in just five days, he completed on October 12th, 19 days after he started.

Despite the “constant, fearful, sleepless nights” (I can't find any reference when these started), twelve days after completing the Quintet he began work on the Piano Quartet which he finished in a month.

In the next month, he also composed a piano trio which he wasn't satisfied with, seven years later recasting as the Phantasiestücke (Op. 88); a work for two pianos, two cellos and horn later became a set of variations for two pianos (Op. 46).

1843 looked to start off as a Year of Choral Music. The new Leipzig Conservatory opened in April, his friend Mendelssohn in charge: Clara was a professor of piano, and Robert a professor of “piano-playing, composition and playing-from-score.” But by June, Schumann was again struggling with new projects that failed to take: he remained “fallow,” compositionally, for the rest of the year.

During the first half of 1844, the Schumanns went on a long Russian tour, though Robert spent a week in one town too ill to travel. In St. Petersburg, Clara played before Tsar Nicholas I and an aristocrat's private orchestra played Robert's “Spring” Symphony. Clara's public audiences were small but Robert's Piano Quintet was well-received in Moscow. Otherwise the tour did not achieve what they had hoped and they returned to Leipzig by the end of May.

Schumann spent much of this tour “tortured by fits of melancholy,” irritated he was wasting his time, unable to work on an operatic setting of Faust he'd been planning since the previous November. Shortly after they returned, he resigned from the magazine he'd founded in 1834, Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, and began more serious work on Faust which became increasingly frustrating during the summer – setting it aside in July, he suffered another breakdown in August when it became intolerable for him to listen to music, which, he said, “cut into my nerves as if with knives.” In October, Clara often found him “swimming in tears” during sleepless nights when he was “seized with fits of shivering and an apprehension of death.” In December, he set Faust aside once more, leaving the work unfinished until 1853 when he described it as an oratorio, “Scenes from Goethe's Faust” (his suicide attempt, btw, was in February, 1853).

So, in the midst of all this pain and anguish – before and after – he found time to write some of the most joyous chamber music ever composed, his three string quartets, this Piano Quintet as well as the Piano Quartet, all within the space of six months!

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One of the curious things most people forget today is that, before Schumann’s, there were no famous Piano Quintets to serve as models.

To Schumann’s example, we would later add those by Brahms and Dvořák, both famous but both later, as would be the less-well-known one by Cesar Franck and the most famous 20th Century one by Shostakovich. There are no Piano Quintets by Mozart or Beethoven (though they wrote piano quartets), much less by their also-rans.

Except for one by Prince Louis Ferdinand, who published one in 1803.

Also-ran he may be, but this prince, a nephew of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia (a great general and a talented if not-so-great composer himself), played the piano “not like a prince but like a real pianist,” according to Beethoven (who dedicated his C Minor Piano Concerto to him). The entry in Grove's Dictionary for “piano quintet” indicates he was a student of Beethoven’s, but the same dictionary’s biographical entry on the prince does not mention this fact.

He was also considered a brilliant soldier, dying on a Napoleonic battlefield in 1806 about a month before his 34th birthday, killed by a French soldier after he refused to surrender. He wrote thirteen published works, his Piano Quintet in C Minor being his Opus 1, his only work published in his lifetime. There are three piano trios and two piano quartets, as well.

I suppose you could ask – considering Schumann knew Prince Louis’ quintet and one could imagine him thinking “here’s a good idea that’s never caught on, take a string quartet and add a pianist” – what prompted Prince Louis to write one?

There are, basically, other works for keyboard and four string players – those by Padre Antonio Soler were intended for the organ, and those by J.C. Bach included the fortepiano or harpsichord more in its role of continuo, the traditional baroque duty of supplying the “harmonic filler” between the melody line and the bass line.

It was also the tradition, in the days before radios, television and stereos when people provided their own entertainment at home, that publishers made piano concertos available to the amateur public. Rather than deal with an orchestra (even the much smaller sized ones in Mozart’s day than the one we think of today), the orchestral part was either arranged or written for three or four string players. The piano here is purely a soloist and the strings, in the standard sense of chamber music, are not equal partners to the piano.

Yes, while Mozart wrote two piano quartets with strings, he did write a quintet for piano and winds (not surprising, since he was delighted with the great wind players he found in Vienna), a work which Beethoven thought so highly of, he imitated it in one, himself. But Beethoven’s publisher also realized there were few opportunities for performances, given the number of wind players as opposed to the number of string players around, so he suggested Beethoven also arrange the work for strings and get more mileage out of it. But curiously, rather than arrange the four wind parts for four strings, one to each wind part, he reworked it into the more standard format of piano quartet with just three stringed instruments. Perhaps if he had decided on four strings, he might have written the first Piano Quintet and decided it was really a good medium, then maybe he'd've written an original one or two. And others may have come along and done the same. But, alas... another chapter in the great game of “What If...”

By the way, a “Piano Quintet” implies a piano with four other players, though it’s usually defined as a piano plus a string quartet (two violins, viola and cello) – or if you’re a string player, a string quartet plus a piano (since it’s more likely you’ll find a pianist being added to a string quartet program than vice-versa). To distinguish them, the two works with winds I mentioned by Mozart and Beethoven are called “Quintets for Piano & Winds.” And since the Trout Quintet by Franz Schubert uses one violin, viola and cello, then adds a double bass, it’s technically not a “piano quintet.” Fortunately, it can just be called the Trout Quintet on the fly rather than the official “Quintet in A Major for Piano & Strings.” But that’s another topic...

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If, during these unsettled times with the Coronavirus pandemic, you are new to Market Square Concerts' videos from previous seasons, you might also want to check out some of our earlier posts:

Different Quartets for a Time of Discovery: Rheinberger & Martinů
Quartets in Quarantime: Beethoven & Schumann to the Rescue (Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet and Schumann's Quartet in A Major, Op.41/3)
Music Less Anxious for a Time of Isolation (Brazilian music for Guitar Duo; French music for solo harp)
Music in a Time of Anxiety: Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos & Percussion
Music in a Time of Anxiety: Shostakovich's Piano Quintet (celebrating Stuart Malina's 20th Anniversary as Music Director of the Harrisburg Symphony)  
Music in a Time of Cancellations: A Bit of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos (with members of the Harrisburg Symphony (excerpts, including the complete Concerto No. 5)  
A Virtual Concert You Can Enjoy in the Safety of Your Own Homes: Poulenc, Mozart, and Dvořák

Note: all videos recorded at Market Square Church were made by Newman Stare. 
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- Dick Strawser

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