The piece is in four movements, in the standard quick-slow-scherzo-quick pattern:
The work was composed in just a few weeks in September and October 1842. Before that year Schumann had completed no chamber music at all, but he now concentrated on the genre, writing his three string quartets and the piano quartet in the same year.
Clara Schumann, the composer's wife and a noted pianist, often played the work throughout her life, despite criticsm of her performance from her husband late in his life and a statement that only a man could understand it. Franz Liszt heard the piece at the Schumanns' home and was distinctly unimpressed by it, though it has been generally popular.