Sliding into Insanity – Schumann’s Fate

Flares amidst darkness. © Charles Thibo

This music is about inner turmoil, about desperation, at the same time about caring love and tenderness. A dark tragedy with a human destiny in its center is unfolding, elements of a Romantic heroic rebellion are flaring up – what a pleasure! What a masterwork! A week ago, I listened to this piece for the first time. Last Friday I heard it played back to back with Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 by the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, Patricia Kopatchinskaja playing the solo part: Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D Minor (WoO 23).

Linking Beethoven to Brahms

“This concerto is the missing link of the violin literature; it is the bridge between the Beethoven and the Brahms concertos, though leaning more towards Brahms. Indeed, one finds the same human warmth, caressing softness, bold manly rhythms, the same lovely arabesque treatment of the violin, the same rich and noble themes and harmonies.” With these enthusiastic words the violinist Yehudi Menuhin characterized a work written in autumn 1853, a work that had to wait 84 years before being performed for the first time. What had happened?

By 1853, Schumann was bordering insanity. He most likely had contracted syphilis, and gradually his neural system degenerated. Hallucinations, moments of despair, phases of enthusiastic creativity – those would become familiar experiences for Schumann from 1854 on until his death in 1856. The circumstances under which he wrote his only violin concerto made Clara Schumann, the violinist Joseph Joachim and Johannes Brahms decide that this work was not to be performed until a century after Schumann’s death. They were afraid that the piece would expose Schumann’s decay and insanity.

A piece claimed by the Nazis

In 1937, the work had its premiere in Berlin, though it was not Menuhin who played the violin part. Germany was ruled by the Nazis and no Jewish artist would be allowed to perform anything in public, let alone a German Romantic concerto. As a matter of fact, the work should not have been released before 1956, but the music publisher Schott had succeeded in securing the rights to print the score. However, when the Nazis found this out, they claimed the work belonged to the German Reich. Culture clashing with politics…

The piece has quite a dramatic history, about as dramatic as Schumann’s final years. And the controversy around this piece is not over. Many critics complain that the last of the three movements is usually played way to fast. Schumann indicated in the score “lebhaft, aber nicht zu schnell” (lively, but not too fast, i.e. a quarter note equalling tempo 63 on the metronome). This would allow the soloist to play this particularly difficult part without too much trouble. The violinist Joachim, a friend of the Schumann family, emphasized himself the measured and graceful character of the finale.

Watch out for that bow!

Obviously, I was looking forward to the concert and to see how the orchestra and Mrs. Kopatchinskaja would deal with the third movement. It did not sound “stattlich” as Joseph Joachim would have it, however Mrs. Kopatchinskaja did not seem to have any particular difficulties with the part. She played it like she had never played anything else. And I lack the expertise to judge which tempo would be appropriate.

The soloist’s overall performance was a true delight. Did I say already that besides being good she is also looking good? No? She looks lovely! And I like to witness a musician actually fully enjoying what he does. She clearly loves this piece of music. The determined expression of her face, the way she brandishes that bow before playing the main theme of the concerto – en garde! The conductor had better watch out! No one will stop this woman once she is unleashed on that Schumann score. And the flamboyant red flamed dress was just ravishing!

To experience the magic of this concerto first hand I suggest a recording featuring Yehudin Menuhin himself and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra or a recording by Joshua Bell and the Cleveland Orchestra.

P.S. Mrs. Kopatchinskaja’s two encores written by György Kurtag – “Hommage to John Cage” and “Ruhelos” – merit a deeper reflection on this blog, especially since Mrs. Kopatchinskaja is fond of Kurtag (see the post on “Signs, Games and Messages”). Kurtag and Schumann belong to the same family, Mrs. Kopatchinskaja said. Romanticism and  “Neue Musik”. You have been warned.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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5 thoughts on “Sliding into Insanity – Schumann’s Fate”

  1. I’m still surprised by Clara’s harsh judgment about this work. Ok, it isn’t a masterpiece of the same level as a Beethoven, Brahms, or Mendelssohn, but it is very worthy in its own right.

    Have you tried Isabelle Faust’s recent recording? It is my current favorite version.

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