As a violinist, I have never played anything written by Schumann before. He composed several things for piano, but nothing (that I am aware of) for solo violin. At a music festival I attended earlier this summer, I played the second violin part of the Schumann Piano Quintet in E flat Major. My chamber group played all four movements during the two weeks of the festival. I am going to share what I learned from playing this piece and how we broke down the learning process.
Movement 1: I like to think of the beginning as an E flat Major parade. In the third measure, the first violin actually has two melodies which he/she is switching between. The second violin has just one melody. This theme is continuing to develop until everyone in the group played two half note b flats, after which the music settles down. When it gets to the cello and viola duet, I think of a meadow setting and two people having a conversation that is being passed back and forth. A little later, someone in the group plays the theme from the beginning while other players perform virtuosic scales which actually are the melody in the passage. The unique thing about the next passage is that everyone in the group is playing the same notes and the same rhythms. Then the theme comes back but this time even louder! This is the climax. The piece has been building and this is the point where everything that has come so far is bridged together. The themes from earlier repeat themselves and the movement comes to a crashing end with as I call the “piano concerto”. I say this because the quartet is meant to follow the piano to a very fast and exciting finish, which is very different to what is about to come in the second movement.
Movement 2: The second movement is a funeral march. There is no room for taking any time in the first theme of the march, you just have to think “left right left right”, like a march. In the next passage, the first violin has a beautiful lyric theme that I look at as the hope within the sadness. The main theme is so melancholy and sad and this melody is so beautiful and hopeful. The agitato part is the climax of the movement and all of the anger and sadness really come together will all of players using the off the beat rhythyms as a fugue (a fugue is a compositional structure where the melody repeats itself in different voices). Then both the hope theme and the funeral march return and this finishes off the movement.
Movement 3: The third movement is so much fun to play and to listen to. This movement is a scherzo, which means a joke. In the first theme, everyone is playing triplet scales. The trick is not to play the triplets like an etude and not to have it sound like just scales. The first trio relaxes more and I think of this as floating through a pool with the sun shining before the storm. Then the triplets come back. I like to think of the triplets as greyhound that are racing, but you can’t let them run so fast that they run over something. The most fun part of the whole piece is trio II. This is a scalar passage as well but this time in 16th notes. The best advice for this passage is: DO NOT ACCENT FIRST BEATS! Create one phrase instead of creating small chunks by accenting the first beats. The “motor” of this passage is 8th notes and that should be brought out more here. From here it goes back to the greyhound-like triplets and comes to a halting finish.
Movement 4: The finale is actually one big fugue. The strings start as the motor or the pulse and the piano is the melody. In this movement there are many transitions but Schumann did not write them in, but instead Implies them. The musicians have to create the transitions by taking short pauses in-between sections to show musical understanding. This movement can sound like fighting and banging if everyone plays their loudest, so be careful to measure your dynamics well and bring out the soft passages. The half notes all need to be extended throughout the movement. When the second violin starts playing the 8th notes by him/herself at letter N (in the middle of the movement), the piano actually has the melody with its very rhythmic line and accompaniment sounding line. When the first violin comes in with the theme from the first movement ( this is the best and coolest part- good job Schumann), this is the first violins chance to have a solo and should project as much as possible. After this, another huge fugue begins with a new version of the theme. At the coda, the tempo should slow down only to speed back up until the ending. This creates a perfect ending for a seemingly magical piece.