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Articles & Interviews

These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you'll hear in the concert hall. We hope you'll find them provocative and entertaining.

May 9, 2017

Music & Friendship: Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn (left) and Robert & Clara Schumann (right)

Born one year and 300 miles apart, Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn met on August 31, 1835. It happened at the concert hall in Leipzig where Mendelssohn had become director. Schumann originally came to Leipzig to study law, though his true passion was music, and he harbored dreams of becoming a professional pianist like Clara Wieck—the young virtuoso daughter of his piano teacher who would ultimately become his wife.

While Schumann was just embarking on his career in music, Mendelssohn was a well-seasoned veteran having presented his first concert at nine years old, and his first symphony at fifteen. Recalling their first meeting, Schumann wrote, “I told him I knew all of his compositions well; he responded with something quite modest. The first impression was of an unforgettable man.” They would share a close friendship until Mendelssohn’s tragically early death from multiple strokes at only thirty-eight years old. Over those years Mendelssohn would conduct performances of Schumann’s music, the two would play chamber music together for entertainment, and they would band together over questions of music making in the experimental post-Beethoven era.

Their upbringings were worlds apart. Felix lived in a rarified world of wealth and prestige, the grandson of the great Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, and the great nephew of Sarah Levy, a harpsichord student and patron of the revered Bach family. Schumann was the son of a bookseller. What their childhoods had in common was a precocious sense of intellectual curiosity and literary astuteness, and both had grown up as fans of Sir Walter Scott. Schumann’s father had published some of the Scott’s works translated into German, and Mendelssohn had traveled to England and Scotland in 1829 hoping to meet the author. 

Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, Scotland

On that trip Mendelssohn visited the Palace of Holyroodhouse and was struck with melodic inspiration for a new symphony. He would write to his family about the emotions of standing where Mary, Queen of Scots, witnessed the violent murder of her private secretary, David Rizzo, at the hands of her jealous husband, and visiting the crumbling chapel ruins proclaimed, “I believe I found today...the beginning of my Scottish Symphony.” Work on that symphonic idea came to a standstill, however, and it would not be premiered for nearly 15 years.

The same year the Scottish Symphony received its premiere, Mendelssohn was introduced to Joseph Joachim, at the time a brilliantly talented twelve-year-old violinist who participated in a concert alongside Schumann’s wife, Clara. Mendelssohn immediately took Joachim as his protégé, and introduced him into their group of friends.

Joseph Joachim and Clara Schumann

In 1853, Schumann wrote a violin concerto for Joachim, but by then Schumann’s fragile mental condition was in rapid decline, culminating in a suicide attempt, admission to an asylum, and death the following year. Due to Schumann’s mental state during the time of composition, and out of concern for Schumann’s musical legacy, Clara and Joachim decided to shelve the concerto, worrying about its quality. It remained tucked away, unperformed, among Joachim’s belongings. Upon Joachim’s death, his son sold the manuscript to the Prussian State Library. The “lost” concerto was unearthed in 1933 following a strange series of events involving Joachim’s grandniece, Jelly d’Arányi (also a violinist), and a séance where she claimed to have communicated with Schumann’s spirit who urged her to find and perform the concerto.

Maestro Roberto Abbado’s choice to program the symphony and concerto of these two friends reflects their mutual and collaborative interaction with the ideals of Romantic, post-Enlightenment, Europe. He remarks, “The close personal connection between Schumann and Mendelssohn is not the only reason I chose the two for this program. The Scottish and Italian Symphonies are the result of Mendelssohn’s engagement with European culture in all its multifaceted iterations in art, literature, and spirituality.” He continues, “Schumann is a composer that always says something new in an original way, and for me that makes him an exciting challenge. Furthermore, his music encourages audiences to explore and discover new horizons even in familiar musical genres.”

Together, in Leipzig for a brief and brilliant time, Mendelssohn and Schumann reveled in the late 18th century “Celtic revival,” and formed the core of musicians and thinkers grappling with the sweeping changes of the 19th century musical landscape. They would each die terribly young, nine years and 300 miles apart.

By Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot


Roberto Abbado leads the San Francisco Symphony in Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3, Scottish and Schumann's Violin Concerto with violinist Veronika Eberle, May 17-21 at Davies Symphony Hall. 415-864-6000

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