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Robert Schumann (1810 - 1856)


Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129
I. Nicht Zu Schnell
II. Langsam
III. Sehr Lebhaft

Genius and madness are often thought to be related in some way, and the life and music of Robert Schumann is an often quoted example. The combination of Schumann's volatile and unstable personality and extraordinary situations and pressures he found himself in combined to push him over the edge into a complete breakdown, and he ended his life in physical and spiritual isolation in an asylum.

His own nature was very sensitive and unstable, almost schizophrenic, alternating between high enthusiasm and serious depression. And indeed he had faced many obstacles in his life. His parents had made it quite clear they did not want him to be a musician, so he studied law, but also took music lessons without their knowledge. Robert's eldest sister (he was the youngest of the family) had committed suicide when he was only 15, which must have had a devastating effect on a sensitive and imaginative teenager.

But the biggest obstacles Robert faced were in connection with his love for, and eventual marriage to, Clara Wieck, the daughter of his piano teacher Friedrich Wieck. Clara was ten years younger than Robert, and they first met when Clara was only nine. Their relationship grew rapidly, and by the time she was fourteen both Robert and Clara knew they were destined for each other. However, by a combination of her own talent and her father's ambition, Clara was rapidly becoming a brilliant pianist, and Friedrich knew that a relationship with the young composer would damage her career. So he put every conceivable obstacle in their way, and when Robert eventually wanted to marry Clara, he had to take Clara's father to court to force him to agree. Some of Friedrich's statements were so outrageous that Robert took him to court again for slander - and won again. But it must have caused enormous strains on their relationship.

In fact their marriage, based on very deep love, survived quite remarkably. [The end of Schumann's life was appalling - after a severe bout of depression in 1854 he threw himself into the River Rhine, but was fished out by passers-by. He demanded to be sent to an asylum, and eventually a tearful Clara agreed. He stayed there for over two years, and though he wrote to Clara frequently, seemed to have completely forgotten that he loved her. She only saw him briefly once more in 1856 when he was at death's door, starving himself to death.]

In 1850 Robert had accepted the offer of Musical Director of the Dusseldorf Music Society, and he and Clara moved there in the summer of that year. Robert found the situation to his liking - an orchestra and choir on hand to try out his new works - and this stimulated his creativity: he wrote both this cello concerto and his third symphony in the first few months there. He wrote the concerto in the remarkably short time of a few week, in September 1850. The concerto is in Schumann's most flowing, lyrical style, full of grace and beauty. Even in its faster sections the music seems effortless - there is little sense of struggle, and no flamboyant passages for the soloist to show off. In this it is unique among cello concertos (and is perhaps why it is not played as often as it should be).

Three soft woodwind chords lead immediately into the soloist's main theme. Where the tune ends is hard to say; even when the orchestra takes over, the theme is still developing. The cello becomes more agitated, until with an abrupt change of key the orchestra darkens the mood. The tonality becomes unstable and a curious short and spiky motive appears on the cello's lowest register. Gradually the mood lightens and we find ourselves in a restatement of the opening melody, now with a syncopated accompaniment pushing it on. Eventually the tempo slackens …

… and we move directly into the song-like slow movement. This has the unusual accompaniment of a second solo cello from within the orchestra, an idea which Brahms later copied in his second piano concerto. Towards the end the theme from the first movement is recalled, and then an accelerating cascade of notes leads into the finale.

The last movement is more playful, full of light and grace. It is largely in rondo form - that is, the theme comes back several times, sometimes on solo cello, sometimes in the orchestra, separated by variations or other themes. Part way through, the key of A minor gives way to the brighter A major, then a short cadenza for the soloist leads to an acceleration to the close.

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