A Lost Masterpiece: Schumann’s Cello Concerto

A Lost Masterpiece: Schumann’s Cello Concerto

This month, the Houston Symphony presents a two-week Schumann Festival featuring the great Romantic composer’s symphonies, concertos, chamber music, songs, and more. In this post, discover Schumann’s masterful Cello Concerto, a work that was only recognized long after Schumann’s death.

One of the first compositions Schumann completed after his arrival in Düsseldorf was his Cello Concerto. Curiously, Schumann seems to have composed it without an intended cellist in mind. From start to finish, the piece was written during a two-week burst of inspiration in October 1850. Perhaps Schumann’s motivation for composing it was revealed in a letter to a prospective publisher when he noted “there are so few works for this lovely instrument.” The concerto was published with piano accompaniment in 1854, and correcting the proofs was one of Schumann’s last activities before his collapse. Unfortunately, the concerto was never publicly performed during his lifetime.

Alisa Weilerstein, cello. Photo credit: Decca/©Harald Hoffmann

Schumann’s prediction that “Since there is a great dearth of such works, the cello concerto is something which will perhaps be welcomed by many” has certainly come true, although it only became standard repertoire decades after Schumann’s death. For a time, it was something of a lost masterpiece. Aside from the absence of soloists during his life, the reason for the delayed recognition likely stems from Schumann’s artistic priorities; though the work is quite technically demanding, unlike many concertos of the era it prizes poetic expression above virtuoso display. As Alisa Weilerstein commented in a 2016 interview, “In fact, the virtuoso parts are a bit thankless, because they are much more difficult than they actually sound!” Though Schumann’s artistic principals may have slowed the concerto’s initial acceptance, they ultimately yielded a work of emotional depth and enduring appeal.

Though some accept it at face value, Schumann’s assertion that “The concerto is also really quite a jolly piece” seems to contradict the work’s brooding A minor tonality (Schumann’s characterization may have been an attempt to market the new and unusual piece to a risk-averse publisher—an effective one, at that). The work opens with three woodwind chords reminiscent of those that serve as a gateway to Shakespeare’s fairyland at the beginning of Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The soloist then introduces a long, entrancing melody:

After a vigorous orchestral transition, the soloist introduces a lighter, contrasting theme, followed by emotive passagework. These themes are then developed and (after a mysterious “false return” of the opening in the distant key of F-sharp minor) reprised. Like several other works by Schumann, this concerto’s movements are linked together without pause, and the music fades seamlessly into the second movement.

The slow second movement opens with a lyrical duet for the soloist and a single orchestral cello marked “mit Ausdruck” (“with expression”). In a contrasting central section, the soloist plays a warm melody in double stops (playing notes on two strings at once), occasionally enriched by the orchestral cello. After a reprise of the opening duet, the woodwinds play a reminiscence of the haunting theme that began the concerto. This ends the reverie, and the soloist responds with a dramatic recitative (a style of operatic sing-speaking) above tremolo strings.

The orchestra begins the finale with the forceful chords of the main theme, answered by virtuoso figuration from the soloist. A transitional passage leads to a second theme, in which the woodwinds echo the cello’s sighing figure. After an intense, virtuoso development, the orchestra begins the reprise of the main themes. After a final return of the main theme in the orchestra, the cello begins a spontaneous passage in the style of an improvisation (a cadenza with some accompaniment from the orchestra–a very unconventional choice on Schumann’s part, since cadenzas are usually unaccompanied). Little by little, the orchestra reenters, leading to a thrilling conclusion.—Calvin Dotsey

Don’t miss Schumann’s Cello Concerto at the Houston Symphony’s Schumann Festival! Learn more and get tickets.

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