The Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44, by Robert Schumann was composed in 1842 and received its first public performance the following year. Noted for its "extroverted, exuberant" character, Schumann's piano quintet is considered one of his finest compositions and a major work of nineteenth-century chamber music. Composed for piano and string quartet, the work revolutionized the instrumentation and musical character of the piano quintet and established it as a quintessentially Romantic genre.
Composition and performance
Schumann composed his piano quintet in just a few weeks in September and October 1842, in the course of his so-called "Chamber Music Year." Prior to 1842, Schumann had completed no chamber music at all with the exception of an early piano quartet (in 1829). However, during his year-long concentration on chamber music he composed three string quartets, followed by the piano quintet, a piano quartet, and the Phantasiestücke for piano trio.
Schumann began his career primarily as a composer for the keyboard, and after his detour into writing for string quartet, according to Joan Chisell, his "reunion with the piano" in composing a piano quintet gave "his creative imagination ... a new lease on life."
John Daverio has argued that Schumann's piano quintet was influenced by Schubert's Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat major, a work Schumann admired. Both works are in the key of E-flat, both feature a funeral march in the second movement, and both conclude with finales that dramatically resurrect earlier thematic material.
Schumann dedicated the piano quintet to his wife, the great pianist Clara Schumann. She was due to perform the piano part for the first private performance of the quintet on 6 December 1842. However, she fell ill and Felix Mendelssohn stepped in, sight-reading the "fiendish" piano part. Mendelssohn's suggestions to Schumann after this performance led the composer to make revisions to the inner movements, including the addition of a second trio to the third movement.
Clara Schumann did play the piano part at the first public performance of the piano quintet on 8 January 1843, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Clara pronounced the work "splendid, full of vigor and freshness." She often performed the work throughout her life. Robert Schumann, however, on one occasion asked a male pianist to replace Clara in a performance of the quintet, remarking that "a man understands that better."
Instrumentation and genre
Schumann's piano quintet is scored for piano and string quartet (two violins, viola, and cello).
By pairing the piano with string quartet, Schumann "virtually invented" a new genre.
 Prior to Schumann, piano quintets were ordinarily composed for keyboard, violin, viola, cello, and double bass. (This is the instrumentation for Schubert's Trout Quintet, for example.)
Schumann's choice to deviate from this model and pair the piano with a standard string quartet lineup reflects the changing technical capabilities and cultural importance, respectively, of these instruments. By 1842, the string quartet had come to be regarded as the most significant and prestigious chamber music ensemble, while advances in the design of the piano had increased its power and dynamic range. Bringing the piano and string quartet together, Schumann's Piano Quintet takes full advantage of the expressive possibilities of these forces in combination, alternating conversational passages between the five instruments with concertante passages in which the combined forces of the strings are massed against the piano. At a time when chamber music was moving out of the salon and into public concert halls, Schumann reimagines the piano quintet as a musical genre "suspended between private and public spheres" alternating between "quasi-symphonic and more properly chamber-like elements."
The piece is in four movements, in the standard quick-slow-scherzo-quick pattern:
- Allegro brillante
- In modo d'una marcia. Un poco largamente
- Scherzo: Molto vivace
- Allegro ma non troppo
First movement: Allegro brillante
The tempo marking for the first movement is "Allegro brillante"; the Italian adjective "brillante" means "glittering" or "sparkling."
The energetic main theme is characterized by wide, upward-leaping intervals. The contrasting second theme, marked dolce, is "meltingly romantic."
Second movement: In modo d'una marcia. Un poco largamente
The main theme of this movement is a funeral march in C minor. It alternates with two contrasting episodes, one a lyrical theme carried by the first violin and cello, the second a more agitated theme carried by the piano with string accompaniment.
The transition between the funeral march and the second (agitated) episode reuses the descending octaves in the piano (doubled by violin) from the second ending of the first movement exposition (see figure). This is one of several moments in the quintet where Schumann creates unity across movements by subtly reusing thematic material.
Third movement: Scherzo: Molto vivace
A lively movement built almost entirely on ascending and descending scales. There are two trios. The first trio is a lyrical canon for violin and viola. The second trio is a heavily accented perpetual motion.
At the end of the piece, the last movement's main theme is combined with the first movement's main theme in a double fugue. This coup may have been inspired by a similar confluence of themes in the E flat quartet op. 12 of Felix Mendelssohn.
Reception and influence
Schumann's piano quintet was widely acclaimed and much-imitated. Its success firmly established the piano quintet as a significant, and quintessentially Romantic, chamber music genre. The Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 of Johannes Brahms, reworked from an earlier sonata for two pianos (itself a reworking of an earlier string quintet) at the urging of Clara Schumann, was one of many significant Romantic piano quintets that shows Schumann's influence and adopts his choice of instrumentation.
Schumann's Piano Quintet failed to please at least one discriminating listener: Franz Liszt heard the piece performed at Schumann's home and dismissed it as "too Leipzigerisch," a reference to the conservative music of composers from Leipzig, especially Felix Mendelssohn.
Use in later art and music
The funeral march theme of the second movement is prominently used as the main theme of the film Fanny and Alexander by Ingmar Bergman, and is played on violin by Rutger Hauer's character Lothos while Buffy kills the vampire portrayed by Paul Reuben in the 1992 feature Buffy the Vampire Slayer (film). It is also featured prominently on the all-classical soundtrack of the noted 1934 horror film The Black Cat.