Schumann's 1842 chamber music exemplifies a common theme in his critical writings, that to sustain a notable inherited tradition composers must not merely imitate the past but reinvent it anew. Yet Schumann's innovative practices have not been sufficiently acknowledged, partly because his instrumental repertory seemed conservative to critics of Schumann's day and beyond, especially when compared to his earlier experimental piano works and songs. This essay offers a revisionist perspective by exploring three chamber movements that recast sonata procedure in one of two complementary ways: either the tonic key monopolizes the exposition (as in the first movement of the Piano Quartet in E♭ major, op. 47), or a modulating main theme undercuts a definitive presence of the tonic key at the outset (as in the first movement of the String Quartet in A major, op. 41, no. 3, and the finale of the String Quartet in A minor, op. 41, no. 1). Viewed against conventional sonata practice, these chamber movements appear puzzling, perhaps even incoherent or awkward, since they thwart the tonal contrast of keys so characteristic of the form. Yet these unusual openings, and the compelling if surprising ramifications that they prompt, signal not compositional weakness but rather an effort to reinterpret the form as a way of strengthening its expressive power.
My analyses also draw on other perspectives to illuminate these sonata forms. All three movements adopt a striking thematic idea or formal ploy that evokes a specific Beethovenian precedent; yet each movement also highlights Schumann’s creative distance from his predecessor by departing in notable ways from the conjured model. Aspects of Schumann’s sketches, especially those concerning changes made during the compositional process, also illuminate relevant analytical points. Finally, in the analysis of the finale of the A-minor quartet, I consider how Schumann’s evocation of Hungarian Gypsy music may be not merely incidental to but supportive of his reimagined sonata form. Ultimately, the perspectives offered here easily accommodate—even celebrate—Schumann’s idiosyncratic approach to sonata form. They also demonstrate that Schumann’s earlier experimental tendencies did not contradict his efforts in the early 1840s to further advance his inherited classical past.
- Beethoven allusion; Piano Quartet
- op. 47; String Quartet
- op. 41. no. 1; String Quartet
- op. 41
- no. 3; style hongrois
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