Schumann: Cello Concerto in A minor, op. 129

Preface to the Eulenburg score © The Estate of Eric Sams, 1971



Robert and Clara Schumann moved from Dresden to Düsseldorf in Sep­tember 1850. Their sojourn there ended in tragedy three and a half years later with his despairing leap into the Rhine, whence he was rescued only to endure two harrowing years of incarceration in the asylum at Endenich ­ the very fate he had foreseen and feared.

   The move to Düsseldorf began unhappily too; the first diary entries there contain an ominous record of strange pains, uneasy feelings, domestic disturbances. But soon there was a respite as Schumann grew gradually more accustomed to his new home and his new duties as musical director. He was impressed by the culture and kindness of performers and public alike; and soon his own music was flowing again with all the old warmth and ease. Not only the Cello Concerto but the Rhenish Symphony Op. 97 date from these first months in Düsseldorf. Each has a strength and spaciousness, an inevitability and integration, that together form a new element in Schumann's music; a feeling as secure and buoyant as the Rhine itself, with hardly a hint of the dark chill depths to come.

   On 10 October 1850 Schumann's diary records an "urge to compose", and on the 24th "cello concerto finished". It was almost his only work for the solo instrument; but it had a direct precursor in the Fünf Stücke im Volkston, Op. 102 (Five Pieces in folksong style), written for cello and piano in 1849. In key-structure (A minor and F major) and thematic material alike they have clear affinities with the Concerto; these pieces may well have been in Schumann's mind at the time, since he was revising proofs for their publica­tion in 1851. As it happened they had also been played at a music-making in celebration of his 40th birthday on 8 June 1850, without (according to his wife's diary) having entirely the success they merited. In that performance she had accompanied their cellist friend Andreas Grabau, to whom the pieces were dedicated. He was no doubt consulted on technical points in the Concerto. Schumann himself was no cellist, although he had once con­templated taking up the instrument nearly twenty years before, when an injury to his right hand had put an end to any possible career as a virtuoso pianist. It is as if he turned to the cello for comfort and courage in adversity; he always wrote of it, and for it, with great affection. We can hear his feeling for the warmth and strength of its melodic tone in the slow movements of all four symphonies, and of the Piano Concerto.

   These singing strains are of course enhanced and enriched in the Cello Concerto by the rhetorical sweeps and flourishes expected of a solo instru­ment; but its main lyrical mood is a continuation of the Fünf Stücke and also of the last works Schumann had written before leaving Dresden, namely the Lenau songs, Op. 90. Not only the continuous cantilena but other features such as the absence of any downbeat in the orchestral accompani­ment (e.g. in bars 4-12) are entirely characteristic of Schumann's songwriting style of these years. Similarly there is no question here of dramatic confrontation or conflict between soloist and orchestra. Both act in concert and harmony throughout; even the cadenza accompanies an orchestral melody. The deeply personal lyric stamp of the whole work is specially impressed on the listener by the soloist's allusion, at bars 282-5, to a theme from the rondo of Schumann's G minor Piano Sonata, Op. 22, written some twelve years earlier; no doubt this device embodies some specific meaning known only to the composer.

   Another influence at work here may be Schumann's affection and admiration for Mendelssohn, a lifelong ideal as man and musician, whose death in November 1847 had been movingly commemorated on its first anniversary by Erinnerung (Remembrance) from the Album für die Jugend, Op. 68. Such homage continued as late as 1854 when Schumann named his last child Felix; and it is a deeply felt theme of his later letters from Endenich. In October 1850, as it happened, he was having daily reminders of Mendelssohn, for Clara was practising the latter's G minor Concerto, Op. 25 for one of her subscription concerts. Further, Schumann's Concerto for cello is very like Mendelssohn's for violin. The key-structures are strikingly analogous in the two first movements; each work begins with woodwind chords in the pro­gression I-1V-I; each has a chordal accompaniment into which the soloist enters straight away with an arpeggio melody. Schumann's later triplet figurations, the emphatic tutti, the linking of the movements without a break; all these are thoroughly Mendelssohnian in mood and manner.

   But neither these affinities nor those with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (e.g. the device of prefacing the finale with a recollection of previous themes) are in the least derivative. Everything that Schumann saw or heard or read or experienced turned into music. So he said as a young man; so his wife told their children in later years. The Cello Concerto, whatever the depths of its musical or spiritual sources, belongs solely and unmistakably to Schumann at forty, in his Düsseldorf or Rhenish period. Its sounding substance mirrors his changing moods, from reverie to excitement, from the soulful singing of the slow movement to the hectic intensity of the finale. All these successive moods can be experienced as a compound of the two basic musical elements labeled x and y below, in a few typical examples of the inner coherence of Schumann’s thought.