James Keller discusses the strange history of Schumann’s only Violin Concerto, which Midori performs at the Lensic
End notes: Schumann’s Violin Concerto Robert Schumann is one of the major names of classical music, and violin concertos, which are perennially popular as a genre, never lack for interpreters. And yet, his sole Violin Concerto, composed in 1853, did not receive a public performance until 1937. Instead, its manuscript sat locked away in the Prussian State Library in Berlin. It had been donated by Joseph Joachim, the renowned violinist who Schumann had imagined would introduce the work to the public and who had, in fact, performed it in several informal readings beginning with a private read-through in January 1854, with the orchestra part being played as a piano accompaniment by Clara Schumann, the composer’s wife. Joachim deposited the manuscript in the library with the stipulation that it not be published until a hundred years after Schumann’s death, which is to say not until 1956.
That the piece was revived earlier than that reflects a strange tale. It begins with the Hungarian violin virtuoso Jelly d’Arányi, for whom Bartók, Ravel, Vaughan Williams, and others composed notable concert works. Off the concert stage, she gained notoriety as a psychic, and in 1933 she announced that the spirits of Schumann and Joachim had led her to Schumann’s forgotten score at the Prussian State Library. In reality, the work was known to scholars, several of whom had examined the piece, written about it, and left it to wait out its hundred years. The fact that d’Arányi was Joachim’s great-niece made things all the more peculiar, and a few music lovers must have thought it inconceivable that the two would not have discussed the piece — violinist to violinist as well as relative to relative — before Joachim shuffled off his mortal coil in 1907, by which time d’Arányi was already a sophomore violin major at the Hungarian Academy of Music. In any case, her announcement arrived with irresistible éclat, and the resultant media hype inspired the firm of Schott Sons to pressure the library into letting it publish the piece immediately. The company’s edition appeared in 1937, over the strenuous objections of Schumann’s youngest daughter, and various violinists jockeyed for the rights to play the premiere.
D’Arányi threw her hat into the ring, but the publishers instead selected a 21-year-old supernova, Yehudi Menuhin. He announced that he would give the premiere in his hometown of San Francisco, with that city’s orchestra conducted by its music director, Pierre Monteux. Menuhin was Jewish. Monteux was Jewish. German authorities in 1937 were outraged. The Reichsmusikkammer, which by then controlled all musical activities within German borders, decreed that the premiere of this neglected work by a great German master must be entrusted to a great German violinist and must take place in the fatherland — which is why it was rushed to its public premiere in November 1937 in Berlin, with Georg Kulenkampff as soloist. This stole some of the spotlight from Menuhin’s American premiere a month later and d’Arányi’s British premiere two months after that. Following an initial flurry of interest, the piece largely receded again from the public ear. Henryk Szeryng promoted it in the 1960s; Susanne Lautenbacher did the same in the ’70s; and Gidon Kremer played it some in the ’80s — with all three leaving recordings as testaments. Its champions have become more numerous since then, but it is still a tough sell. About 20 recordings of it are currently available, which is not much when compared with approximately 200 each in print for the violin concertos of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Brahms.
The issue was quality. Right from the outset, Joachim had doubts about the piece. He did acknowledge to Schumann that he hadn’t played well at the first private performance, that he “did it an injustice.” But shortly after completing the piece, Schumann plunged into the Rhine in a suicide attempt and had himself committed to an insane asylum, where Joachim occasionally traveled to visit him. One might assume that Joachim kept his comments on the positive and encouraging side during the two and a half years of Schumann’s irretrievable decline. It would seem that his actions spoke louder than his words, though, and (abetted by Clara Schumann and the other kingpin of the Schumann circle, Johannes Brahms) he felt they were doing the composer a favor by consigning the piece to silence. He left no doubt when, in 1898, he wrote to his own biographer explaining why he did not support the work, regretfully sharing a litany of what he considered its shortcomings.
When Robert Haven Schauffler published his 1945 biography, Florestan: The Life and Work of Robert Schumann , he referred to the piece only in passing, and then dismissively: “The Violin Concerto has so little of the quality which Schumann-lovers wish it had that … it might be called … a ‘disconcerto.’ In his piety toward the Master’s good name, Joseph Joachim was justified in endeavoring to keep the work from publication.” Not until the 1990s did opinion begin to swing very vigorously in the opposite direction. John Daverio’s essential Robert Schumann: Herald of a “New Poetic Age” (1997) reconsiders the received opinion that the composer’s late
works reflect his crumbling mental faculties. “An unbiased look at the late music will disclose qualities too frequently overlooked: a heightened intensity of expression, a rigorous limitation of thematic materials, and a visionary prefiguration of features associated with later composers including Bruckner, Reger, and even Schoenberg.” He then draws listeners’ attention to the unfolding of musical themes in the second movement of the Violin Concerto. “One could say that the point of the movement resides precisely in the gradual realization of this motive’s potential. ... Only a composer in full command of his or her rational powers can realize the consequences of this interdependence of variety and unity. Robert Schumann was such a composer — until February 1854.”
On Saturday, Feb. 28, and Sunday, March 1, violinist Midori will appear with the Santa Fe Pro Musica Orchestra as soloist in this concerto. According to Thomas O’Connor, who will conduct, the idea to perform it came from Midori. “She has signed a contract to record it with Christoph Eschenbach and the Staatskapelle Dresden in July 2015, so this season presents an opportunity for her to become comfortable playing the concerto with a variety of orchestras.” In the course of studying the work, he has become an enthusiast. “I think it’s a fantastic piece, and a lot of violinists now have an interest in it that didn’t exist before. It’s a reflection of the slow process of recognizing that the piece has extraordinary passages in it, and that it is thoughtful and well constructed. The opening movement has a full-throated, robust orchestral introduction in which themes are clearly stated, very much like Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in that way, and yet this is in Schumann’s own language. The movement’s development section is extraordinary in itself; where Beethoven might have built drama out of a melodic fragment, Schumann instead builds a four-note fragment into wonderful solos for the clarinet and then the oboe. There’s a nostalgic calmness and restfulness about it that is unusual for a development section. It’s very haunting, simple but powerful. I can’t think of anything quite like it.”
The third movement is sometimes cited as being overly repetitive in its figuration and unvarying in its overall effect, but here, too, O’Connor sees it otherwise. “There is a spot in the third movement that is absolutely extraordinary,” he insisted, “where the harmony moves through a beautiful, otherworldly sequence of mostly minor-seventh chords. One might look at the more unusual aspects of this concerto and say they are reflections of his deteriorating mental state. But I think instead that he is pushing the boundaries of composition, that he is doing things that are forward-looking.” That triple-time final movement also presents a problem involving tempo. Schumann’s heading leaves room for puzzlement: Lebhaft, doch nicht schnell (Lively, yet not fast). To this Schumann adds a metronome marking of 63 beats per minute, which most guides would say translates to a very slow tempo like largo or adagio. “It can be successful at that tempo,” O’Connor said. “Gidon Kremer made a recording with [conductor Nikolaus] Harnoncourt that makes the case for following Schumann’s metronome marking. The movement has the character of a polonaise, with accents on the first and third beats of many bars, which in itself would hold it back a bit. Still, it seems slow to most violinists; it doesn’t make for the kind of high-energy pyrotechnics that would be more typical of last movements of concertos. We’ll go with whatever tempo Midori wants.”
Before the tide turned on assessments of the Schumann Violin Concerto, commentators often cited the violin writing as physically awkward, particularly in passages involving melodic leaps and wide-spanning arpeggios. “Maybe that did conspire against the piece in the past,” O’Connor said, “but today the technical accomplishment of virtuoso violinists is so high that I don’t think it’s an issue. I believe the piece deserves to be one of the major staples in the violin repertoire.”
The Santa Fe Pro Musica Orchestra performs Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8, “Musica Celestis,” by Aaron Jay Kernis, and Schumann’s Violin Concerto with Midori at the Lensic Performing Arts Center (211 W. San Francisco St.) at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 28, and at 3 p.m. on Sunday, March 1. For tickets, $20 to $65 (with discounts available), call 505-988-1234 or visit www.ticketssantafe.org.
Conductor Thomas O’Connor