I vowed to myself (privately) that I wouldn’t feature music from the same composer for consecutive weeks—I did this once before and I think made everyone tired of Mozart! (I featured all five of his violin concertos in five weeks, which is kind of crazy.)
However, I when I read the story of the Schumann violin concerto last week while researching his piano concerto, I knew I had to talk about this violin concerto because the story behind it is so strange.
Here’s what happened with Robert Schumann: he had severe mental issues and eventually committed himself to an insane asylum, where he died at the age of forty-six. The violin concerto in D minor was his only concerto for the instrument and one of his last major compositions. And—here’s where it get strange—it was virtually unknown to the world for over eighty years.
Schumann wrote the concerto in 1853, right before he had his mental breakdown and suicide attempt that would lead to his voluntary commitment in the asylum. He wrote it for the violinist Joseph Joachim. Four months after completing it, Schumann attempted suicide.
After he was in the asylum and then dead two years later, Joachim refused to perform the piece. He kept the manuscript and played it over with an orchestra, but never performed it publicly. Word is that he thought it was a morbid work since Schumann wrote it so soon before attempting suicide. He managed to convince Schumann’s wife, Clara, of this opinion and the violin concerto was not included in complete edition of Schumann’s works. (Note that Clara spent her life after Schumann died promoting his work—just not this piece.)
Joachim died in 1907 and left the manuscript with the Prussian State Library in Berlin. His will said that it should not be played or published until one hundred years after Schumann’s death, which would be the year 1956.
This is where things get really weird. In 1933, Joachim’s two grand-nieces, who were also violinists, attended a seance in London. Allegedly, a spirit that was Robert Schumann requested that they recover an unpublished work of his. Another spirit, allegedly that of Joseph Joachim, said the work was in the library in Berlin. Both sisters claimed not to have known about the piece in advance.
After this, there was no mention of the concerto until 1937, when Yehudi Menuhin wanted to play it, but one of Joachim’s grand-nieces claimed that she had the right to premiere it because of the spiritual messages from the seance.
None of this actually mattered because the German government held the copyright and insisted that a German give the world premiere. Remember, this was the Nazi era, so that sort of thing was important to the Germans back then. Georg Kulenkampff gave the premiere, then Menuhin played it in America.
The concerto has gained slow acceptance. Unfortunately, a lot of people have said it was inferior and showed Schumann’s decline as an artist. I’ve listened to it and I think it’s quite nice—and this conductor agrees with me, so hopefully that lends credibility to my view.
If you made it through all that, bravo! Your reward is this wonderful concerto.
Or click here to watch on YouTube.