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Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129

About the Work

Robert Schumann
Quick Look Composer: Robert Schumann
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Steven Isserlis, cello, plays Schumann Feb. 6 - 8, 2014
© Peter Laki

Robert Schumann's appointment as music director in Düsseldorf in 1850 promised the beginning of a new career for the 40-year-old composer, who had gone through a series of severe emotional and artistic crises in the previous years. In 1844, following a serious nervous breakdown, he had sold the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik ("New Music Journal") of which he had been the proprietor, editor and chief music critic, and moved from Leipzig to Dresden with his wife, the great pianist Clara Wieck, and their two children. (Four more children were born to the Schumanns in Dresden, and another two in Düsseldorf.)

The Dresden years did not fulfill Schumann's expectations. The concert life in the Saxon capital was less active than in Leipzig, a great cultural and commercial center. The main musical institution in Dresden was the court opera, where Schumann had to face a formidable rival by the name of Richard Wagner, who was the conductor there. Wagner's Tannhäuser and Lohengrin were written while the two men lived in the same city (though Lohengrin's first performance fell through due to the 1848 revolution and Wagner's subsequent flight from Germany). Schumann's own opera Genoveva, completed in 1848, was not accepted for performance in Dresden, and was finally produced in Leipzig, Schumann's old home, in 1850.

By that time, however, the call from Düsseldorf had come. A friend of Schumann's, the noted composer and conductor Ferdinand Hiller, was relinquishing his post as music director and recommended Schumann as his successor. It was difficult for Schumann to leave his native Saxony for the Rhineland, about 400 miles to the west. Although he had occasionally conducted orchestras before, this was his first full-time appointment as a conductor. He felt, however, that he could not turn down his extraordinary offer, and in September 1850 he and his family took up residence in Düsseldorf. The success of the new symphony completed soon after his arrival (and appropriately nicknamed the "Rhenish") promised a new beginning for Schumann, who seemed finally on his way to recovery from years of poor physical and mental health. Alas, this promise was not to be fulfilled: after only two seasons, his relations with the orchestra became troubled. He attempted suicide early in 1854 and spent the rest of his life in an asylum.

But back in 1850, Schumann was full of energy, thrilled by the prospect of new artistic activities. In three months, he completed two major orchestral works, the "Rhenish" Symphony and the Cello Concerto. However, while Schumann soon conducted highly acclaimed performances of the symphony in Düsseldorf and elsewhere, the concerto remained unperformed in the composer's lifetime.

The choice of a concerto for cello and orchestra is in itself a surprising one. No major composer since Haydn had written such a work, although two lighter pieces for cello and orchestra exist by Carl Maria von Weber, and many composers, most of them cellists, had written concertos, variations, and other concert pieces.

Schumann, while not a cellist himself, had in fact played the cello for a while. Having been forced to give up the piano due to an injury to his right hand, he took up the cello as an instrument he hoped he could still master. We don't know exactly how far he got in his studies, but he definitely had a strong affinity for the instrument. The year before the concerto, in 1849, he wrote five short pieces for cello and piano (Op. 102).

Schumann's cello concerto is in three movements, to be played without interruption. The linkage of the movements is further emphasized by transitions and bridge passages unifying the whole composition through a network of motivic similarities. Thus, the three chords that open the work also constitute-in modified form-the transition to the slow movement, and finally prepare the last movement's main melody. The introduction to the finale, moreover, contains reminiscences of themes from the first and second movements.

The first movement is dominated by the beautiful solo cello melody with which it opens. The second consists of a single cantabile for the solo instrument, accompanied, interestingly enough, by a second solo cello from the orchestra. The finale, likewise, is based on a single idea, but it also give rise to a contrasting second theme, with an enchanting dialog between solo cello and woodwind. The only cadenza in the concerto comes at the end of the third movement; it has the peculiarity of being accompanied by the orchestra.