Robert Schumann: Violin Concerto in D Minor

My kid likes Frozen.  I suspect if you also live with a 3 year old human, you might be subjected to bouts of the soundtrack from time to time.  In the dark recesses of my mind, I fantasize that Disney executives have crafted an irresistible formula for attracting and enslaving the minds of small children in order to ensure an eternity of Disney fandom.  That between "Love is an Open Door" and "Let it Go" some sort of subconscious Morse code escapes from my stereo and convinces my preschooler that Daddy hates him unless we buy a lot of shit we don't need at prices we can't afford made by children who aren't fortunate enough to live in a country with child-labor laws.  Case-in-point, I put on "Frozen" radio on my phone yesterday and out comes the familiar tones of you-know-what.  I look at the boy and ask, "Is this what you want to listen to?"

Incidentally, children can grow mustaches at will.
I've preached about my moral-centric hatred and categorical rejection of the radio and its inherently bad taste in placing profitability over musicality (a model which LF.com unfortunately does not employ - believe me we tried...). Despite this, I sometimes find a gem in the wavelengths.  In this case it was NPR and they were talking about one of my favorites, Robert Schumann (1810-1856).

They were going on about all the usual stuff- Schumann married Clara Wieck against her father's, Friedrich Weick, will.  The elder Wieck also happened to be Schumann's piano teacher who was selling him on the fact that Robert would be able to make a killing in the virtuosic piano game.

"Babies.. before we're done here.. y'all be wearing gold-plated diapers."
Unfortunately for Schumann, he injured his hand.  While it's not directly known how this injury occurred, scholars think it had to do with his anti-syphilis medication, a surgery to make his hands work better (not a great idea in the 1800's b-t-dubs), or some sort of mechanical finger strengthener device.  In any event, with a bum hand he wasn't going to wow any audiences and switched to composition.  In the ultimate act of father-figure retribution, he marries the daughter of his teacher, which royally cheeses off Freidrich who then pursues legal action against the post-nuptials.

The other big issue with Schumann is that he pretty much went nuts towards the end.  He suffered from what essentially sounds like bipolar disorder for most of his life.  He'd have these spats of manic composition and produce amazing amounts of work, followed by periods of deep "melancholia" to use the parlance of his time.  It eventually became more troubling as he began to hear voices of dead composers in his head whom sang him melodies and told him to do stuff.  He'd hear angelic choirs which would turn demonic and eventually the whole ordeal drove him to throw himself into the Rhine river to prevent his loss of control from causing any harm to his beloved Clara.  He was rescued by boaters and sent home.

Ultimately, the combination of already prevalent mental-illness and what was quickly (and presumably) becoming late-stage syphilis led him to become deeply troubled, to the point that he checked himself into a mental asylum and left his affairs in the hands of Clara and Brahms.  I say "presumably" above because we really don't know what happened to Schumann.  Typical treatment for syphilis at the time was doses of mercury, which is pretty much the worst thing you could do and during his autopsy, a large tumor was found at the base of his brain, lending credence to the whole auditory hallucination deal.  

In his later years, Schumann began to compose from this place of mental breakdown and took liberties ill-afforded to his contemporaries who were less involved in the whole syphilis, mercury-poisoning, brain-tumor ordeal.  One such piece is our target of focus today, his Violin Concerto in D minor, written in 1853 about a year before Schumann attempted suicide.  He wrote the work for violinist Joseph Joachim whom he had composed a number of other works for, however upon playing through the piece Joachim felt it represented too much of Schumann's terminal decline and basically hid the work from the public for the rest of his life.  He placed the piece in the custody of the Prussian State Library and wrote instructions in his will that the work not be performed until 100 years after the death of Schumann (which would of course be 1956).  This is where it gets weird.

In 1933, Joachim's grand-nieces are hanging out in a weird part of town and decide to attend a séance in London.  Schumann and Joachim (now dead for 77 and 26 years respectively) both drop in unannounced and tell the girls that one of them (Jelly d'Arányi) has to perform this work and they've got to go to Berlin to find the manuscript in the library.  Neither girl had ever heard of the work before.  

Nothing happened until 1937 when Schott Music (a German publisher) discovered it and asked the opinion of American-born violinist,Yehudi Menuhin who loved it and was totally down with premiering it in San Fransicso, right up until d'Arányi drops the whole "did your dead great-uncle speak forth from beyond the grave and tell you to premier his 80-year-old concerto that all his bros thought sucked - I DON'T THINK SO!"

Unfortunately, neither of the two violinists would get the chance to premier the work as Germany still held the copyright and they were hellbent on having a German premier the work since they were into that whole "Deutschland ist das beste" deal in the early-mid 20th century for an unrelated reason. The honor went to Georg Kulenkampff, who apparently was a much better Nazi than violinist. 

Interestingly enough, Paul Hindemith was commissioned to create a violin-piano reduction of the score, still in manuscript form.  Hindemith of course by this point was essentially barred from performing his own works in Germany, but the Reich let it slide just this once since it was convenient for them.  Menuhin would perform the work next in Carnegie Hall and d'Arányi would garner the privilege of fulfilling her dead uncle's supposed vision by premiering the work in London at the Queen's Hall.

It's really a pretty beautiful work, and upon hearing it I'm given to wonder if it was nothing more than Joachim's opinion that created a sort of pall of doom and gloom over the work and convinced Brahms and Clara to hide it from the public, lest Robert's reputation be ridiculed and subjected to harsh criticism.  It speaks loudly to the public perception of mental illness of the day, that just the association of a piece of music with a state of mind and being could reflect so poorly on one's character.  It then becomes a sad commentary on our state of affairs today that mental illness still is awarded with such stigma when in all reality it is no different an affliction than cancer, diabetes or any number of debilitating diseases to which a cure is somewhat complicated and to which the best medication can be support and love, not fear and derision.  

So, think not then of what ailed Schumann in his composition, but instead focus on what he was able to accomplish and listen with clear ears and heart.

See you next Friday.


(I present the 2nd and 3rd movements as I was unable to locate a recording that had all three.  Joshua Bell has a few, but the way the 2nd and 3rd movements are structured, it's really enjoyable to listen to the contrast between both).