Listen to a narrated version of this essay:
The tale may indeed be fantastical, yet it’s too tasty not to tell, especially at this time of the year.
One evening in 1933, two Hungarian sisters named Jelly d’Arányi and Adila Fachiri—accomplished violinists and connoisseurs of the occult—attended a spiritualist séance at the London residence of a prominent Swedish diplomat. As the story goes, a Ouija board was used to summon the spirit of none other than Robert Schumann, who reportedly instructed d’Arányi to retrieve a long-lost work of his, and to give it the performance it never received. Guided by further messages from the afterlife, d’Arányi made her way to the Prussian State Library in Berlin. There she found the manuscript of Schumann’s Violin Concerto, the last orchestral work that the composer wrote—and seen by no one in 80 years.
As lurid as this anecdote is, the skeptics among us can point out that d’Arányi and Fachiri happened to be the grandnieces of the concerto’s dedicatee, the 19th-century virtuoso Joseph Joachim. Not only was Joachim crucial in the piece’s gestation, he was also responsible for having it suppressed. It seems entirely possible that d’Arányi would have heard whispers of the concerto’s whereabouts from various family members—though this inconvenient possibility does tend to spoil the best ghost story in classical music history.
At any rate, the work had its beginnings in the summer of 1853, when Joachim, then in his early 20s, asked his friend Schumann to write a concerto for him. The composer, living in Düsseldorf with his wife, the pianist and composer Clara Schumann, began work in September, doing so with manic gusto. Within a matter of weeks, he was finished, despite crippling depression, dizzy spells, and arthritic pain—symptoms of the syphilis manifesting itself after many years of latency. That Schumann could compose a major three-movement concerto under such circumstances—and so quickly at that—seems nothing short of astounding. Soon, he would descend into psychosis, seeing visions, speaking incoherently, hearing voices—the sounds of angels one minute, the cries of hyenas and tigers the next.
Things hit bottom in February 1854. Fearing the worst, he pleaded with Clara to institutionalize him. “It won’t be for long,” he supposedly said to her, “and I’ll come back cured.” The next afternoon—the annual Rose Monday carnival in Düsseldorf, with the streets thrumming with costumed revelers—Schumann left his home in the frigid cold, wearing his house slippers, walked to a bridge that spanned the Rhine, then leapt into the river. Thrashing about in the icy waters, he was rescued by some fishermen who dragged him into their boat and later took him home. Now, Schumann was indeed committed. He spent the last two and a half years of his life at a Bonn sanatorium, with Clara forbidden from seeing him. Only in July 1856 did she finally reunite with her husband, but a few days later, Schumann was dead.
As for the Violin Concerto, Joachim never performed it. Citing the composer’s mental state, and what appeared to be certain unplayable passages in the work, he and Clara, together with Johannes Brahms, concluded that it was not up to the standards of Schumann’s best music. As Joachim put it,
It must be regretfully stated that it betrays a certain decline, from which spiritual energy tries to free itself. Individual passages (how could it be otherwise!) give evidence of a profound creative spirit; but the contrast with the work as a whole is all the more disappointing, therefore, such a work ought not be printed, or performed in public, since it would add nothing to the composer’s laurels!
When Joachim died in 1907, his family sold the manuscript to the Prussian State Library. A provision in Joachim’s will stipulated that the piece should not be published or played until the centenary of Schumann’s death—1956. Yet 23 years before the expiration date, d’Arányi made her discovery, guided, as she insisted, by Schumann’s shade.
Now that the work was made public, a battle ensued over who should give the world premiere. In 1937, officials at the German publishing house Schott sent the score to Yehudi Menuhin, asking for his evaluation. Menuhin was stunned. In a letter to Vladimir Golschmann, the conductor of the St. Louis Symphony, Menuhin praised the concerto “as romantic, heroic, supplicating, and tender”:
This concerto is the historically missing link for the violin literature; it is the bridge between the Beethoven and the Brahms concertos, though leaning more towards Brahms. Indeed, one finds in both 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. There is also a great thematic resemblance. One is struck with the fact that Brahms could never have been what he was without Schumann’s influence!
Menuhin declared his intention to play the concerto later that fall, in the United States. When d’Arányi heard this, she argued that she should be the one to play it first. (She was no slouch as an instrumentalist—Maurice Ravel wrote his dizzying, pyrotechnic Tzigane for her.) The German government, however, maintained not only that the work’s copyright was held in Germany, but that only a German violinist should be allowed to give the premiere of this newly discovered German work. So, on November 26, 1937, with the likes of Joseph Goebbels in attendance, the violinist Georg Kulenkampff and the Berlin Philharmonic, led by Karl Böhm, performed the concerto, although in a heavily revised and rewritten version. Menuhin played it at Carnegie Hall less than two weeks later; d’Arányi followed with a concert in London.
Unlike Schumann’s concertos for piano and cello, however, the Violin Concerto never quite caught fire with the public. It did have its 20th-century adherents (Menuhin, Ida Haendel, Henryk Szeryng), but only recently has the work enjoyed something of a revival. I have loved the piece since hearing both of Gidon Kremer’s recordings, from the 1980s and ’90s, always wondering how so moving, poetic, and haunting a piece could have been shelved for eight decades. From the start of this rhapsodic work, one feels a heightened intensity, the impassioned theme underscored by driving, agitated triplet figures in the second violins and violas. There are many moments of contemplation and soul searching, and it’s hard not to hear utter despair in this music, given what we know of Schumann’s demise—a tortured soul laid bare. Even in the beatific second movement, with its sweet and tender theme, the long, lyrical solo lines are tinged with an underlying sense of anguish.
I can only imagine that Joachim was disappointed by the lack of obvious virtuosity in the concerto. The piece is rife with technical challenges and plenty of awkward passages, as well—it does not, as the saying goes, lie comfortably under the fingers. Yet there are few places in this symphonic work where the violinist can display his or her chops. For all the hard work, there’s no obvious payoff—if one’s intent is to dazzle an audience with technique. Take the finale of the piece. Traditionally, the last movement of a Romantic concerto is an opportunity for a showy display: virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake. Yet Schumann marked the movement, “Lively but not fast,” assigning it a strange metronome marking, a quarter note equaling 63—a deliberate tempo hardly conducive to thrilling an audience, to driving it to its feet. How could Joachim not have thought Schumann insane? (Clara Schumann, too, was displeased with this finale.) Sure enough, early interpreters of the work simply ignored the metronome marking and played the movement as fast as possible. Yet we know from correspondence that what Schumann imagined for this movement was not some fleet, virtuosic, high-wire act, but rather a polonaise—the grand and stately dance that Chopin popularized in his piano music. In other words, the metronome marking was no mistake. The finale contains so much joyous music, at once gracious and grand—it was never meant to offer up cheap thrills. In so many ways, then, Schumann was turning the traditional Romantic concerto on its head, even if his contemporaries saw only madness in his method. To appreciate his Violin Concerto on its own terms is to understand just how revolutionary this magnificent work is.
Listen to Gidon Kremer play the Schumann Violin Concerto, with Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe: