The Kennedy Center

Sonata No. 2 in D minor, Op. 121

About the Work

Robert Schumann Composer: Robert Schumann
© Peter Laki

All three of Schumann's violin sonatas date from the last years of his creative life, that final burst of hectic activity that preceded his attempted suicide and mental collapse early in 1854. They were composed relatively fast. The first sonata was drafted in a matter of days. The second, heard at tonight's concert, took all of three weeks, and the third one was finished in about the same amount of time. In his late works Schumann combined the intense Romantic passion of his youth with a newfound structural rigor where everything derives organically from a very small number of motivic cells. The four movements of the D-minor sonata are all based on a motif composed of the notes of the D-minor triad in the order D-A-F-D. This sequence of notes, as commentators have pointed out, corresponds to the name of the violinist to whom the piece was dedicated, Ferdinand David. David, the concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus, was a close friend of both Schumann and Mendelssohn and the dedicatee of the latter's E-minor Violin Concerto.

Out of the rather plain triadic idea suggested by David's name, Schumann constructed an extremely diverse work, highly virtuosic, emotionally profound and rather sophisticated in its use of harmony and rhythm. If the name predetermined the D-minor tonality, Schumann took full advantage of dramatic associations that came with that key. The opening movement begins with a tightly wrought introduction in a slow tempo, followed by a fast section bursting with energy. The D-A-F-D motif is present both in its original form and in a modified version where its rhythmic outline (four half-notes) is retained but the actual pitches may change. In later movements Schumann sometimes used that rhythmic outline by itself, which proved sufficient to unify the work motivically.

The second movement is a scherzo with two trios, where the four-note theme is never far from the surface. Near the end of the movement Schumann suddenly reveals the kinship of his theme with the chorale melody Mendelssohn had used in the last movement of his Piano Trio in C minor: It is a quote that was possibly intended as a memorial for Mendelssohn, who passed away four years earlier.

Another chorale-like derivative of the four-note theme appears as the melody of the slow third movement. This theme also recalls the opening of Schumann's "Spring" Symphony of 1841-except the melody sounds quiet and subdued here: the violin plays pizzicato (plucking the strings), and the piano uses the soft pedal. In the course of a set of variations on this theme, the accompaniment keeps changing while the melody stays the same. Because of all the motivic links among the movements, a quote from the scherzo blends in naturally with the surrounding music.

In the tempestuous finale Schumann discovers still more possibilities to exploit his core motivic idea, deriving from it a new theme which is constantly repeated, varied, and developed as the momentum keeps increasing. Just before the end the key changes from D minor to D major, allowing the sonata to end on a bright and exuberant note.