Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op.44 (1842)    
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Robert and Clara Schumann were married in September, 1840, the day before Clara's 21st birthday.  The ceremony took place after almost four years of prolonged hostility and opposition from Clara's father, the prominent piano pedagogue Friedrich Wieck, and against his will.  Still, Schumann was elated about his marriage.  His ebullience gave rise to a stream of compositional energy, as if there were no end to the music within him.  

Today, Schumann's bipolar nature is well known.  His manic/depressive disease manifested itself in composition by an obsessive focus on one particular type of writing for an extended period. In the late 1830s, he composed almost exclusively for solo piano.  The year 1840 brought forth an outpouring of Lieder, including the important song cycles Dichterliebe and Frauenliebe und Leben; 1841 was a year of orchestral works.

In 1842 Schumann turned his attention to chamber music, producing the String Quartets, Op. 41, this evening's Piano Quintet, and the Piano Quartet Op. 47, also in E-flat.  Schumann was treading a new path for himself with these works.  This was the composer of brilliant vignettes inspired by literary masterpieces and the writings of Jean-Paul Richter; the composer of Carnaval and Faschingsschwank aus Wien, of Kreisleriana and the Davidsbundlertänze.  Schumann, the miniaturist par excellence, turned from the extra-musical associations which had dominated the music of his youth.  Instead, he immersed himself in the study of counterpoint, particularly fugue, and the composition of absolute music.  The first result of his new absorption was the three string quartets.  They proved to be his only essay in the genre, but he profited from his fresh experience with them to combine the quartet ensemble with piano in his next chamber work, the Piano Quintet.

Schumann cannot truly be said to have "invented" the piano quintet as Mozart did the piano quartet.  The 18th-century Italian Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805), who was active in the Spanish court, wrote a dozen works for the same instrumentation.  They are little known today, and were almost certainly unknown to Schumann, whose expansion to the combination of piano plus string quartet was logical in light of his recent completion of the Op. 41 quartets.  He was anxious to return to composing for the instrument he knew and loved best -- and Clara's instrument.  At the same time, he was still filled with ideas for the string quartet.  By combining the two, he brought together his own considerable musical imagination with the varied sonorities of five players.  

Clara was, of course, the pianist for whom Schumann wrote the work.  She played its premiere, and incorporated it into her repertoire immediately, thereby contributing to its popularity.  The Quintet rapidly became one of Schumann's best known compositions.  Schumann's friend Mendelssohn played the second performance, and had an early hand in the reworking of the scherzo.

The Piano Quintet is one of Schumann's happiest inspirations in the realm of formally governed, abstract music.  It shows a command of form and a discipline over his musical imagination that recurred infrequently in his remaining 14 years.  The opening movement is a fine sonata-form structure, with both strong and lyrical themes.  As one would expect, piano plays a major role, functioning as a partner to the string quartet as a whole rather than as one of five individual components of the musical texture.  Nevertheless the keyboard does not overshadow the string players, whose parts are written effectively and idiomatically.  The movement is noble and strong, characterized by aggressive foursquare phrases and a compelling vitality throughout.  Schumann demonstrates his mastery of song-like writing in the lovely slow movement.  He casts this march as a rondo, with strongly contrasting episodes interrupting its tentative main idea.

Schumann's scherzo is dazzling.  This whirlwind bravura tour de force is constructed, remarkably, of ascending and descending scale passages.  Both its trios provide rhythmic contrast; the second in particular contains probably the most challenging technical writing for strings in the work.  

The finale is one of the most extraordinary movements in the entire chamber music literature.  Schumann teases us with G minor before firmly grounding his musical material in the home tonality of E-flat major.  As in the first movement, he shows a gratifying command of form and musical matter throughout; the finale is a convincing sonata-rondo.  But in this Allegro ma non troppo he saves his finest writing for last.  In the splendid coda -- another fugato -- he not only concentrates his most technically secure contrapuntal writing, but also incorporates the main theme of the first movement.  This coda bears proud testimony to his hard-won mastery of counterpoint.  Schumann weaves expertly, bringing his quintet to a brilliant, unified, and satisfying close.

Piano Quintet in G minor, Op.57 (1940)
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

The Shostakovich Piano Quintet is a rare, thought-provoking work.  Even a first hearing leaves listeners with the uncanny sense that they already know this work well, and that they have heard something significant.  At the same time one is struck with the Quintet's originality; nothing sounds hackneyed and Shostakovich’s score comes across as fresh and immediate. 

Shostakovich composed it during summer 1940, shortly before the Nazi invasion forced the Soviet Union into the Second World War.  The composer played the premiere in Moscow on 23 November, 1940 with members of the Beethoven Quartet.  (Its members were lifelong friends; they also premiered 13 of Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets.)  Critical and popular reaction to the new piece was electric.  The Quintet was immediately hailed as a masterpiece.  It earned Shostakovich the Stalin Prize of 100,000 roubles; at the time this was the largest sum of money ever awarded for a piece of music.

The quintet has five movements, but it may also be perceived in three large sections, because the first two and last two movements are played without pause.  These outer sections make a centerpiece of the middle scherzo, creating a sort of arch form of the complete work. 

Within the five movements Shostakovich pays homage to many of his musical predecessors.  The Prelude and Fugue that begin the work hark back to the Baroque era. Dance-like and fleet, the scherzo recalls the breathtaking and magical third movements of Beethoven and Mendelssohn.  Shostakovich's Intermezzo, though in some ways the most individual of the five movements, manages to take a simultaneous bow to J.S. Bach and to Paul Hindemith.  And the finale, with its delicate diatonic grace, is quite Mozartean.

Despite this apparent melting pot of musical styles, the Piano Quintet is well-unified and closely knit.  One of the ways in which Shostakovich accomplishes this unity is texture.  Only rarely does he employ the full sonority of the quintet.  Because of that, when all five performers do participate, the composer achieves extra emphasis and emotional power.  Many momentary duets and trios occur; it is as if he wished to give each player a special opportunity to listen to the others.  This is music as much for the performers as it is for the listeners.

The piano is treated polyphonically for most of the quintet.  In the Fugue, Shostakovich temporarily increases his voicing to six by using each of the pianist's hands for a separate fugue entrance.  In all four movements, the pianist frequently plays unisons at a distance of one or two octaves, rather than chords, which might compromise the balance. By treating the piano in this linear fashion -- a technique characteristic of Shostakovich, especially in chamber music -- he focuses attention on melody and the interplay of polyphonic lines.  The piano becomes an extension of the string instruments.

A prevalence of slow tempi in the quintet throws a bright spotlight on the central scherzo.  Curiously, though this movement is generally taken at breakneck speed, it is only marked Allegretto.  Shostakovich apparently wished to maintain a sense of moderation and restraint throughout.  His concluding movement fulfills this intent admirably.  Its pastoral simplicity and direct terms show startling grace.  There is humor as well.  According to biographer Victor Seroff, one of the finale's themes is the traditional tune used by Russian circuses to herald the arrival of the clowns.  Philosophical, witty and uplifting, the Finale is music for the soul.

Quintet for Piano and Strings in F minor, Op.34 (1865)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

One of the darkest musical canvasses of Brahms's entire career, the Piano Quintet underwent several metamorphoses before it crystallized in its current form.  The music dates primarily from 1862, although it was not published until 1865. Originally Brahms intended it for string quintet.  His friend and chamber music collaborator Joseph Joachim persuaded him that the string ensemble, even enlarged by the second cello, was insufficient to do justice to the work's musical climaxes and symphonic conception.  

Switching to the keyboard, whose sound could achieve a more orchestral breadth, Brahms chose to rewrite the work as a sonata for two pianos; in this version it was performed in Vienna in April 1864, more than two years before the Quintet’s première. (The two piano version was published in 1871 as Op.34a.) With two pianos at his disposal, Brahms achieved the power and clarity he sought, but he remained dissatisfied with the forfeiture of string color and timbre.  He finally arrived at a synthesis of piano and strings. The result – in the version we hear – is a chamber music masterpiece that has been called the climax of his first maturity.

The overall impression this quintet creates is one of grandeur and monumental tragedy.  Perhaps because it underwent such extensive reworking, it is filled with a profusion of melodic ideas.  If the grand scale and impassioned mood of the quintet as a whole are Beethovenian, its melodic abundance, particularly in second themes and in the slow movement, is more Schubertian.

Brahms's opening movement is initially restrained and tragic. Piano, first violin and cello state the theme in stark unison before the full ensemble lashes forth with a series of angry, defiant musical utterances. These two contrasting ideas furnish much of the material that Brahms develops in the expansive Allegro non troppo. Along with a related motive that is introduced by a falling, sighing half-step, these musical ideas will recur in subtly altered form throughout the entire quintet. 

The slow movement, in tripartite [ABA] form, shares the dreamy, lyrical quality of the analogous movement in the early Piano Sonata in F minor, Op.5.  Piano introduces Brahms’s material in parallel thirds and sixths, with syncopated octave commentary from the strings. Hints of minor mode inflect the harmonies with an Eastern European flavor. Brahms is at his most Schubertian in this lovely movement. 

The scherzo is expansive and massive, with thunderous passages that call to mind the scherzo of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony.  Brahms sets up a splendid contrast between the pizzicato pedal of the cello and the sinuous, syncopated meanderings of first violin and viola in unison. Their quiet opening statement switches meter briefly to introduce a rat-a-tat-tat reference, still pianissimo, to the first movement. Then the full ensemble explodes into the Beethoven allusion. The gentler side of Brahms’s musical personality manifests itself in the Trio, whose melody draws on the heritage of folk music. Still, there are grandeur and majesty in these gestures. 

A mysterious slow introduction – the only one in Brahms’s chamber music –  opens the finale. Marked Poco sostenuto [A bit sustained], that introduction is one of the sections for which strings were essential to deliver the desolate quality that Brahms desired. The balance of the finale is an abbreviated sonata/rondo. Brahms gathers momentum slowly, deceiving the listener with apparent switches of temperament, for there is much humor in this music to mitigate its darkness. Very likely the entire movement served as a structural model for the finale to the First Symphony (1862-1876).

The quintet culminates in a magnificent, oversize coda that shifts into overdrive. Brahms recasts the main theme first in 6/8 time, then by syncopation, driving it toward its dramatic conclusion.  Symphonic in its conception, the quintet is a masterpiece of the chamber music literature, providing a profound and memorable listening experience. 

Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2016