A hint of drama, a longing for tenderness, a calm discussion about him and her, repressed fear to displease, not to be up to the challenge, a touch of don’t-question-my-authority arrogance… is that what inspired Robert Schumann when he wrote the String Quartet No. 1 in A minor, Op. 41? The music triggered those ideas in my mind and perhaps they reflected more my own feelings than Schumann’s. Who knows? Man is a curious beast. Super intelligent, super difficult to live with.
Twilight. The sun has already disappeared the moment I am writing this. I am serene. I did everything I wanted to do today. My girl has gone to sleep, my wife hasn’t returned from work yet and I have time for Schumann, for the newspapers, for my blog and for incoherent thoughts. I love that, the incoherent thoughts. I spend a large part of the day thinking in a disciplined way: anticipating future problems, solving present problems, coordinating people, leading people, controlling people. It costs a lot of energy to stay fully focused for hours, day after day. Idle thoughts are a luxury.
Schumann wrote a set of three quartets in June and July 1842: No. 1 in A minor, No. 2 in F major and No. 3 in A major. Together they form Op. 41. He felt ready for this challenge after having studied the quartets of Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and Felix Mendelssohn, to whom he dedicated the set. They were first performed on 13 September 1842 as a present for his wife Clara on her 23rd birthday. By then they had been married for two years after a legal battle against Clara’s father.
Coherence is at the centre of Schumann’s music even though it may seem at the surface that his music is drifting from one idea to the other. That precisely is the special appeal of Schumann’s music in general and the String Quartet No. 1 in particular. Story tellers know the goal they are aiming for, but they built up tension by revealing only gradually where there heading. New elements add momentum, but the audience only realizes what the final destination is once it has reached it. Schumann follows the same principle.
In 1838 Schumann felt the urge to write string quartets for the first time. In a letter to Clara he wrote: “I am looking forward to the quartets myself, the piano restricts me too much, I often hear in my present works a lot of things that I can’t even sketch properly, for instance it is awkward how I invent everything in a canonical way […] I pay much attention to the melody now.” Nine years later he would conclude that the three string quartets are the best compositions of his youth.
The three quartets have been recorded by the Hagen Quartett.
© Charles Thibo