Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
String Quartet in A minor, op. 41, no. 1
by James Jaffe
Robert Schumann was an inspired Romantic composer who, in modern times, would likely be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. All three of his op. 41 string quartets come from a two-month burst of activity in 1842. While sending them to his publisher he wrote, “Be assured, I have spared no pains in creating something very decent, indeed sometimes I think it is my best.” The phrase “spared no pains” could just as well describe any great performance of them: Schumann demands incredible energy, technical skill, and emotional depth from his performers.
During his time as editor of a German musical magazine, Schumann invented several fictional characters and creatively used their voices to write about music. There was the passionate, impulsive Florestan; dreamy, thoughtful Eusebius; and Master Raro who was more objective, capable of synthesizing the viewpoints of the other two. Schumann didn’t expressly ask us to find these alter egos in his own music, but it can still be compelling to listen for the voices of Florestan, Eusebius, and Master Raro in his String Quartet in A Minor, op. 41, no. 1.
The first movement opens with the players entering one by one, and the music is slow, longing, and melancholic. Tension builds to a peak and finally releases into a much warmer, more energetic main section. The second and third movements are starkly contrasting: the second is spiky and swaggering while the third is slow and beautifully lyric. The final movement is marked Presto, which in this case propels each full bar of music to go by in under a second. Furiously energetic, the music stops for a brief moment of transformational calm near the end, before charging ahead to the finish.