Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Schumann's Piano Quintet: Up Close & Personal

Tonight, you have a chance to hear one of the most popular works in the chamber music repertoire when Market Square Concerts begins its SummerMusic 2008 series at 8:00 in Market Square Presbyterian Church in downtown Harrisburg. Pianist Stuart Malina will be joining the Fry Street String Quartet for this performance (let’s hope everybody stays away from sharp implements while preparing dinner). The program also includes the 2nd of the three “Razumovsky” Quartets by Beethoven and an array of songs from the Baroque to the Present with soprano Ilana Davidson accompanied by Stuart Malina (incidentally, the beard stays). I thought I’d take you “up close and personal” with the Schumann Quintet.

You could probably say Robert Schumann was the first blogger - at least about classical music. The magazine he started in 1834, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, literally the New Journal for Music, was mostly a new music journal dealing with issues of the day, published twice weekly with four two-column pages per issue. Rather than focusing on writing reviews (at least in the traditional sense), he wrote about issues and concerns in the music world, countering the Philistine influence of the day’s stuffier critics. He and his writers, otherwise lacking the internet since Al Gore hadn’t been invented yet, offered a great deal of commentary and opinion. Schumann even supplied a few short stories now and then, often satirical, like the thinly disguised attack on his then ex-girlfriend Clara Wieck and her new boyfriend, Carl Banck.

Among the 300 articles he wrote over a period of ten years were discussions on musical and literary aesthetics by his alter-egos, Florestan and Eusebius. It was here he published his famous articles announcing the arrival of such new talents as Chopin and Brahms. Considering what the role of criticism has been in the traditional world of newspapers (and at least those today that still have music critics on staff), that’s more the sort of thing you’d find in the blogosphere, isn’t it? Sort of.

Schumann may never really have intended to be a composer any more than most pianists in those days wrote music for themselves to play. He only seriously began focusing on composing after he had injured his hand with one of Friedrich Wieck’s mechanical contraptions designed to strengthen the weak 4th finger during hours spent practicing. If he couldn’t keep him from marrying his daughter, Wieck at least managed to, however inadvertently, ruin Schumann’s career as a performer, so in a perverse way we owe thanks to him for knowing Schumann today as a composer.

All the music Schumann published in the years before his marriage were for solo piano, much of it intended for Wieck’s best pupil, Clara. There were also things like the little piece based on the letters ASCH, transformed into a musical theme (S is the German equivalent of E-flat, and H is B-natural), which was the home town of another piano student, Ernestine von Fricken, to whom he became secretly engaged while on the outs with Clara. This became a section of the suite Carnaval. A rather morose march by her father became the basis of the Symphonic Etudes which are really a set of variations (and even though Symphonic Etudes may be a slightly misleading title, it beats being known as the Fricken Variations). By the way, the engagement was broken off when Schumann and Clara got back together and when Schumann realized Ernestine was officially illegitimate (not that he was making much headway with this girl’s father, either).

After he and Clara were able to overcome the various legal hurdles her father put in their way, they were married in 1840, the day before her 21st birthday. So it’s rather surprising that he suddenly started composing other things than just piano music but all in concentrated bouts of feverish creativity – 1840 was a year of songs, followed by one of symphonies. And the next year, chamber music.

In his day, Schumann was probably better known as a writer about music than a composer of music. Actually, he was probably better known as Mr. Clara Schumann, trailing along on her fame to appear at her performances when she’d play some of his music. It was after one such tour resulted in a rather severe bout of depression that he composed his Piano Quintet. And also three string quartets and a piano quartet, all in about six months’ time.

They had gone off together for a tour 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 journal while Clara went on to Copenhagen without him. During her month-long absence, he studied fugue and counterpoint (again) and examined quartets by Mozart and Haydn, then later those by Beethoven. And he also drank a lot, slipping into a period of depression during which Old Wieck managed to spread the rumor that they’d separated and were heading for a divorce. Thoughts of a tour of America were shelved when Clara returned in 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 five thaler fine” (I don’t know what the equivalent of the standard German unit of currency would’ve been, but an 1841 thaler recently sold on E-bay for $270). The 3rd Quartet was finished on July 22nd, seven weeks after he’d begun work on the first.

During August, there was a bit of a summer vacation - I should mention, without getting too personal, the Schumann’s second child was born nine months later - then back to Leipzig for rehearsals of the three quartets in early September. On the 23rd, then, 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. Twelve days after that, he began the Piano Quartet which he finished in a month. In the next month, he also composed a piano trio which he later recast as the Phantasiestücke (Op. 88) and a work for two pianos, two cellos and horn that later became a set of variations for two pianos (Op. 46).

All of that in seven months! (It’s easy to be envious of such creativity, considering I’ve been working on a short new piece for violin and piano since late April and in three months haven’t yet gotten beyond the 8th measure, but I digress...)

One of the curious things that most people forget today is that, before Schumann’s, there were no famous Piano Quintets. To Schumann’s, we would add those by Brahms and Dvořák, both famous (and equally over-played) but both later, as would be the less-well-known one by Cesar Franck and the most famous 20th Century one by Shostakovich. But when I mean “over-played,” it’s only because – how many masterpieces can a pianist and a string quartet, combining for a performance, play? 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 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 Grove Dictionary entry for “piano quintet” indicates he was a student of Beethoven’s, but the dictionary’s biographical entry on the prince does not mention that 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, since 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 not, in the standard sense of chamber music, an equal partner to the strings.

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 it for four strings, one to each wind part, he reworked it into the more standard format of piano quartet. Perhaps if he had decided on a string quintet, he might have written the first Piano Quintet and decided it was really a good medium and 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” really means 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...

If I (and you) had time for another 1900 words, I’d write about Beethoven’s Razumovsky Quartet on the program, too. The SummerMusic series continues this weekend at the Glen Allen Mill (see my previous post for more information about these concerts), Since the Sunday performance includes my favorite (if it’s possible to have a favorite) Beethoven quartet, the C-sharp Minor Quartet, Op.131, maybe I’ll post something about that, later.

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