BEAUTY of music | the piano quintet
Noon chamber music concerts at Christ Church Cathedral are a signature part of the final week of the American Pianists Awards. December's Beauty of Music gets us looking toward April with an exploration of the piano quintet.
During Discovery Week (April 3-8, 2017), each American Pianists Awards finalist will perform a piano quintet with the illustrious Pacifica Quartet. Sam Hong will perform Dvorak’s 2nd Quintet, Steven Lin will perform Dohnányi’s 1st, Drew Petersen will perform Franck, Alex Beyer will perform Brahms and Henry Kramer will perform Schumann’s masterpiece. Each of these works is scored for piano, 2 violins, viola and cello.
It’s fair to say that without Schumann’s Piano Quintet, the other four quintets we will hear probably wouldn’t exist. Schumann wrote his Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44, in 1842 during his so-called “year of chamber music.” Schumann’s work established the piano quintet as a distinctly romantic genre and became the standard for future quintets.
A handful of piano quintets existed before Schumann’s, but the instrumentation varied greatly. Mozart and Beethoven each wrote a 3-movement quintet scored for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon. When paired with strings, composers more often wrote for piano, violin, viola, cello, and double bass, as with Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet (1819) and Hummel’s Op. 87 (1802). Some 18th-century composers wrote quintets as keyboard works with string accompaniment. Often the composer, an accomplished musician, would write music that his amateur patrons could join him in playing.
While the Trout quintet is one of Schubert’s more popular chamber pieces, it is not one of his most substantial works. And while Mozart was quite proud of his quintet, and Beethoven’s piece is an homage to it, their instrumentation leads to both pieces being performed less frequently than their quality merits.
Schumann’s quintet, though, self-consciously paired the piano with an already established chamber ensemble: the string quartet. The string quartet had long been considered the most important chamber music genre—Haydn popularized the form, and Mozart, with the 6 string quartets he dedicated to Haydn, painstakingly perfected it. Beethoven would pick up where Mozart and Haydn left off, and by his late period, the string quartet would become the avenue for some of his most inspired music.
With the string quartet so firmly established, it seemed only natural that one might pair the ensemble with the piano in the way a concerto pairs the instrument with an orchestra. Schumann had just finished his three string quartets of his Op. 41 when he began work on the Piano Quintet. Like the string quartet and the symphony, Schumann adopted a 4-movement scheme (though he had originally planned an extra middle movement that he abandoned after sketching). While passages may evoke concerto style, the relative equality of the different instruments and the harmonic structure is more typical of other forms of chamber music.
Schumann’s Piano Quintet was an instant success and has been frequently performed since it was first introduced. With its thick textures and voice doublings, it also demonstrates the evolution of chamber music from private to public spaces, and the quintet was performed in both settings, receiving its public debut at the famed Gewandhaus in Leipzig with Schumann’s wife, Clara, performing the piano part.
Schumann’s Piano Quintet inspired many composers to expand the genre. In addition to those we will hear during Discovery Week, there are also well-known (and some less-known) piano quintets by Shostakovich, Elgar, Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Sebelius, Bartók, Borodin, Bruch, Webern, Korngold, Medtner and Furtwängler, among many others. Because of the rich repertoire, the prestige of the genre, and the logistical convenience of working with an established ensemble, the piano quintet stands today as the chamber music genre of choice for major piano competitions.
The 2017 American Pianists Awards culminate with Discovery Week, six days packed with adjudicated performances across multiple genres. Daily chamber music recitals from April 3 to April 7 each feature a finalist playing a piano quintet with the Pacifica Quartet. Learn more by visiting the full Discovery Week schedule.