In 1853, towards the end of his life, in just 13 days, Schumann composed his only Violin Concerto in D minor. The idea for this work though had matured in 1851, when a repetatve motive began to sound compulsively in the composer’s head. He also heard quiet voices, strange harmonies. He shared to his wife Clara: “Something is happening to my hearing, every time I sit down to write I hear nothing but the note ‘la’. I go crazy… I think I see the ghosts of Schubert and Mendelssohn. They talk to me when I’m trying to sleep. And they give me inspiration to write a wonderful violin concerto.” Schumann wrote down several sketches on music paper and they became the basis of the future concerto. The work was conceived for and dedicated to the talented violinist Joseph Joachim (for whom he also wrote the Fantasie Op. 131 and the Third Violin Sonata). Soon after completing the score, he sent it to the performer with the question – are there passages that are impossible to play? He planned to present the new concerto in Düsseldorf with Joachim as soloist. But the idea thwarted as he had since retired from his conducting post there. The violinist is known to have played the concerto in Hanover in January 1854, at a festival he and Brahms were organising as a tribute to the composer. A month later, in the darkness of his increasingly overwhelming mental disorder, Schumann suddenly left his home and threw himself into the waters of the Rhine. Rescued by fishermen, he was placed in the small mental asylum Endenich near Bonn, where he lived for two more years until his death.
From there on, the fate of the Violin Concerto becaem a real thriller. Convinced of the inferiority of his last opuses, Clara Schumann and Brahms did not include it in the complete edition of Schumann’s works. Joachim was consulted, and he was of the opinion that it is ‘a manifestation of a certain exhaustion which is trying to drain the last resources of spiritual energy’. And since he owned the manuscript, he stated in his will that the Concerto should neither be performed nor published until 100 years after Schumann’s death (1956!). After his death, his son sold the manuscript to the Prussian State Library with this stipulation.
Thus, throughout the 19th century, traces of the composition were erased. Until the summer of 1933, when, during a spiritualistic séance in London, the ghost of Schumann appeared to the two sisters, Jelly d’Aranyi and Adela Fakhri, famous violinists. He summoned Jelly to discover and perform the Violin Concerto (once written for their great-uncle Joseph Joachim). No matter how much they asked, no one has heard of this work. At another spiritualist session, the ghost of Joachim appears to them, guiding them to search for the score in the museum of the Higher School of Music in Berlin. Baron Erik Palmstierna (the Swedish ambassador in London, who was also present at the séances), took on the task of tracking it down. He did not find it there and, advised by a random visitor to the museum, went to the archives of the Prussian State Library, where the manuscript marked “unfinished concerto” was preserved.
In 1937, the publisher of Schott Music sent violinist Yehudi Menuhin a copy of the Concerto score for his opinion. He re-performed it with his sister, the pianist Hephzibah Menuhin, and informed the conductor Vladimir Golschmann that it was the historical lost link in the violin literature between the concertos of Beethoven and Brahms. He planned to give a world premiere of the work in San Francisco and announced it for October 3rd 1937. Most unexpectedly, however, it was thwarted by Jelly d’Aranyi, who claimed the right of first performance on the basis of the spiritualistic messages given to her by the composer’s ghost. Their dispute proved futile – the Nazi government intervened, insisting that the copyrights for the performance of the concerto belong to Germany. And since Yehudi Menuhin was Jewish, the premiere should be carried out by a German soloist. It took place on November 26th, 1937 at the Deutsches Opernhaus – Berlin, the soloist of the Berlin Philharmonic being Georg Kulenkampff, the conductor – Carl Böhm. Schumann’s concerto has been promoted as “quintessentially German” in contrast to Mendelssohn’s concerto, which has been removed from the repertoire as Jewish. Kullenkampf also made a recording of the work with a significant revision of the solo part.
In the same year, Menuhin presented the Concerto in New York, at Carnegie Hall with pianist Ferguson Webster in the original solo part, then with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra under Golschmann. And Jelly D’Aranyi played it in London at Queen’s Hall with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
So the concerto has been revived to new life after more than 80 years of oblivion! Belonging to Schumann’s early poetic and passionate style rather than the poised manner of his later works, it is a three movements composition and begins with a double exposition of the ecstatic theme – it is heard first in the orchestra, then with the solo violin. In contrasting episodes it interweaves with the lyrical uplifting theme. The dramaturgy unfolds through a transformation of the musical material. The symphonisation of the genre is evident in the tight interweaving of the solo part with the orchestra and the absence of the traditional cadenza, displaying the virtuosity of the performer. The short second movement is on one of Schumann’s most beautiful melodies. This is the tune that he said was dictated to him by the spirits of Mendelssohn and Schubert. (On this theme he wrote the Geistervariationen in early 1854 and Brahms the Piano Variations Op. 23 cycle). Without pause, the third movement flows in, conceived by the composer not as a final firework but as a ‘majestic polonaise’.