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Chamber music – The piano quintet in the nineteenth century

The origins of this ensemble combining a piano and a string quartet are similar to those of the piano quartet: stemming from the classical divertimento, both were often used for transcriptions of keyboard concertos. While Boccherini’s twelve Quintets op. 56 and 57 (1797 and 1799) are original works, it was Schumann’s opus 44 (1842) that truly gave the genre its credentials. Up to the mid-nineteenth century, France generally favoured the quintet for piano, violin, viola, cello and double-bass (adopted by Schubert for The Trout), an ensemble that inspired concertante-style works by Louise Farrenc and George Onslow. In 1855, Saint-Saëns composed the first great French quintet for piano and “traditional” quartet. Its large scale and rich counterpoint (already present in Schumann’s work) became features of the pieces composed in the second half of the century (by Brahms and Franck). Later on, many French musicians were to cultivate the endless possibilities of this instrumental combination, including Castillon, Gouvy, Widor, Fauré, Schmitt, Pierné, Vierne and Koechlin.