1842 was the year of chamber music for Robert Schumann (as 1840 and 1841 were the years of song and of orchestral music, respectively), and he commenced his remarkable instrumental explorations with the three string quartets eventually published together as Opus 41. For many years it was customary to dismiss these three works as unidiomatic and overly-pianistic, claiming that their composer's relative unfamiliarity with string instruments precluded him from creating works of much merit. While it is true that the pianistic figurations and general lack of independence between the voices do prevent these works from comparing favorably with works of the two great chamber masters on either historical side of Schumann (Beethoven on the one, Brahms on the other), their total lack of dependence on the dry clichés of the mid-nineteenth century and their intensely expressive musical poetry compensate for such flaws as would be insurmountable in the music of a lesser composer. The three Opus 41 string quartets, then, are entirely successful on their own terms, much as, though he was far more familiar with the medium, Schumann found himself compelled to discover fresh solutions to the compositional issues presented by the keyboard.
The Quartet in F major Op.41, No.2 was Schumann's first effort in the form. Its opening movement commences without introduction of any kind, the listener being drawn in by its congenial three-four meter violin melody. Like Op.41, No.1, Schumann finds no room for a second theme (indeed, he seems unwilling to part from this lovely F major for any length of time at all), and the development contains little more overt tension than does the exposition.
Theme and variations (andante quasi variazioni) is the game of the following movement, whose A flat major, twelve-eight melody flows graciously forward on steady waves of quarter-eighth, quarter-eight rhythm. Schumann writes four variations, a reprise of the theme in nearly its original form, and a lovely coda. The scherzo, cast (somewhat unusually) in the key of C minor, is a lightning-fast exploration of arpeggiation in six-eight meter. A sparkling trio sets a humorous cello theme against eighth-note offbeats and quicksilver, spiccato scales.
The finale owes a great deal to the trio of the previous movement, for it, too, is built of a texture emphasizing witty offbeats and spiccato textures. We have, quite naturally, returned to F major for this rondo movement, throughout which Schumann seems content to let the well-mannered, light-hearted atmosphere of the preceding three movements play out until the very end.