The Kennedy Center

Violin Concerto in D minor

About the Work

Robert Schumann Composer: Robert Schumann
© Peter Laki

In the summer of 1853, violinist Joseph Joachim, at age 22 already a celebrity, asked his friend and mentor, the 43-year-old Schumann, to write a violin concerto for him.  Schumann immediately complied, composing not one work but two, a Fantasy in C major for violin and orchestra, and the Violin Concerto in D minor.  Both were written in an extremely short time during what proved to be the last productive year of Schumann's life, before his attempted suicide and subsequent confinement to the Endenich asylum early in 1854. 

      Joachim duly received both works in 1853 (the Fantasy had taken the composer 6 days to complete, the concerto 13).  The violinist took to the Fantasy immediately, and performed it frequently over the years.  The concerto, however, he never played, nor did he allow anyone else to lay hands on the manuscript.  He declared that the work should not be published because "it is not equal in rank with so many of [Schumann's] glorious creations."  After the composer's death, his widow Clara, the famous pianist, was in agreement with Joachim, and so was Brahms, who edited Schumann's works for the publishing firm Breitkopf & Härtel.  The work was omitted from the "complete" edition, and the manuscript, bequeathed by Joachim to his eldest son, eventually wound up at the Prussian State Library in Berlin, with the proviso that it was not to be performed until 100 years after Schumann's death (1956).  Then, however, a most remarkable thing happened. 

      Joachim had two great-nieces, Adila and Jelly d'Arányi, who were both concert violinists and lived in London between the two world wars.  Jelly, the younger of the sisters, was the dedicatee of Bartók's two sonatas for violin and piano as well as of Ravel's Tzigane.  She also had a strong interest in the occult, and often participated in spiritualist séances where she communicated with spirits by moving an upturned glass in the center of a circle displaying the letters of the alphabet.  (Schumann himself was known to engage in similar activities, particularly around the time the Violin Concerto was written.)  Jelly d'Arányi claimed that, during one such séance, she had received a message from an unknown sender urging here to find and perform an unpublished work of his for the violin.  When asked the composer's name, the tumbler spelled r-o-b-e-r-t s-c-h-u-m-a-n-n on the table.  The work was subsequently tracked down and performed, 19 years before the expiration of the 100-year proviso.  (D'Arányi said she had had no previous knowledge of the concerto, even though it had been in her family and had been mentioned several times in the Schumann literature.)

      The Nazi government insisted that the first performance be given in Berlin by a German violinist (so that the event could be described in the press under the headline "By permission of the Führer...Robert Schumann has entered Valhalla").  Therefore, the honor of premiering Schumann's posthumous violin concerto went to Georg Kulenkampff.  Jelly d'Arányi played the British premiere on February 16, 1938, with the BBC Symphony under the direction of Adrian Boult.  Yehudi Menuhin-who called the concerto the "historically missing link" between the Beethoven and the Brahms concertos-had given the United States premiere shortly before.  Since then, the long-suppressed concerto has begun to appear on concert programs with some frequency; yet it has not, to this day, found universal acceptance because of the perception, still present in some quarters, that Schumann's creative powers were on the decline during the last years of his career.

      True, Schumann had been in poor physical and mental health long before the catastrophe of 1854.  (The development of his symptoms is described in great detail in the book Schumann:  The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius by psychiatrist Peter Ostwald.)  Schumann's condition had also begun to interfere with his work as music director in Düsseldorf, where the chorus refused to sing under him.  His assistant had to step in more than once during orchestral rehearsals to avert disaster.  In spite of all this, Schumann composed a great deal in 1853, and works like Introduction and Allegro for piano and orchestra, or Märchenerzählungen (Fairy Tales) for clarinet, viola and piano, certainly show a master of undiminished stature.  But it is no longer the exuberant young Schumann of the time of Papillons and Carnaval.  There is something autumnal about Schumann's late works that is hard to describe-a change of mood, certainly, but that does not necessarily mean a decline in quality.  Discussing the late songs, British musicologist Eric Sams noted that so many are about death, sorrow and resignation-an observation that may offer some clues about the Violin Concerto as well.

      Schumann chose D minor as the concerto's main tonality, a key that had tragic connotations since the days of Mozart.  Only the first movement is actually in that key, but that is enough to set an intensely Sturm und Drang ("storm and stress") tone that is the direct descendant of such works as Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20.  The form is traditional, but the melodies are highly original.  One particular passage around the middle of the movement, where the thematic material seems completely to disintegrated in a quiet dialog between orchestra and soloists (the orchestra plays single chords that last one beat, answered by short arpeggios of the solo violin on the second beat) creates a moment of unusual suspense.

      The melancholy melody of the second movement is certainly as beautiful as anything Schumann ever wrote.  It closely resembles a theme Schumann claimed was dictated to him by Schubert.  On this theme, which was published als Schumanns letzter musikalischer Gedanke (Schumann's last musical thought), Brahms later wrote a set of variations for piano four hands.  (Schumann himself had written variations on the same theme but they, like the violin concerto, were suppressed and remained unpublished until the 1930s.  They are now known as the Geistervariationen or "Ghost Variations.")

      In the slow movement of the concerto, the melody that is a close cousin of the "ghost theme" becomes even more poignant when repeated in a minor key.  After a short transition, the last movement, a lively polonaise in D major, follows without a break.  Schumann created a link between the second and third movements towards the middle of the finale, where he brought back the syncopated accompaniment figure of the slow movement as a subtle reminder.  This episode casts a transient shadow on an otherwise cheerful movement, in keeping with Schumann's "autumnal" mood.  But happily, the concerto form demanded that this brief moment of depression be relieved by a brilliant and extroverted ending.