Robert Schumann called the string quartet a “by turns beautiful and even abstrusely woven conversation among four people.” To him, the genre was venerable and worthy of deep study; he knew and revered the quartets of Haydn and Mozart, and like his contemporary and close friend Mendelssohn, he was demonstrably influenced by Beethoven’s quartets when he wrote his own. In fact, when considered vis-à-vis his fanciful, wildly romantic output for solo piano, Schumann’s quartets appear as an astonishingly concise, contained and classical group; the “road map” through each movement is crystal-clear, sometimes severely so. On the other hand, the spirit and intent which invest every note of this music bear the unmistakable stamp of Schumann the Romantic, the yearner, the impulsive.
Schumann wrote his three quartets virtually simultaneously, in a couple of summer months in 1842. It was not the easiest time of his life; married only a short time to Clara, who was one of the most celebrated pianists of her generation, he was reconciling himself to being the moon to her sun, and often living at home without her. His letters and journal entries from this year repeatedly refer to gloomy moods, fatigue, and ill health. However, the quartets contain little indication of this state, being filled with decidedly more sunlight than shadow.
The A Major Quartet, which is the third of these, opens with a tender call, a downward-falling two- note motif, which is often affectionately referred to as the “Clara” motif. The entire first movement bases itself on the interval of this motif, which dominates not only the hesitant, short-lived introduction, but also each of the two melodies in the main body of the movement. The second of these, an airborne song first heard in the cello, is accompanied by hovering, offbeat chords in the upper instruments, which seem to want to lift the melody off the ground entirely.
The second movement, a set of variations, continues the idea of “off the beat”, a favorite rhythmic game of Schumann’s. In this case, the “theme” for the variations appears first as a series of gasps punctuated by brief silences, as if the singer were hyperventilating. Two energetic variations follow close on its heels, the first rendered in shuddering triplets, and the second in declamatory long notes alternating with scampering quick ones. Then follows a sighing Adagio variation, a kind of swaying slow dance. In this variation, we feel that we have finally gotten the original, gasping theme to stand still for a moment, so that we can at last behold the true theme of the movement, candid and vulnerable. The fourth and final variation is stern and embattled, carried onward by churning eighth-notes in the accompaniment. The movement ends with an odd coda, which wanders like a sleepwalker through various keys before settling to a standstill.
The third movement starts out with the promise of repose. In part a hymn, in part a more rhapsodic love-declaration, the music offers a grounded quality that is wholly absent in the first two movements. However, the contrasting episode that follows dissipates that illusion. Punctuated by an obsessive rhythm in the second violin, this section has a nightmarish, angst- ridden quality. Vividly, the main theme from the calmer opening of the movement reappears here, no longer consoling, but rather the agent of intensification. The movement alternates between these two moods, working itself out in a coda where some kind of a resolution is reached among lingering doubts.
The finale is a jovial round dance, a kind of rondo that cheerfully alternates three or four different sections, each section self-contained and rhythmically homogeneous. But the odd thing is that Schumann starts the movement off on the upbeat, and manages to keep the music “off”, or off- balance, for virtually the entire movement. So we are rustic, but perhaps a little tipsy as well. Particularly in the extended coda, where the music attempts to stay off the beat but is constantly corrected by downbeat jabs, there is a sense that the music may not quite find its feet in time for the exuberant conclusion.
Note by Misha Amory