As of 1840 few would have predicted that Robert Schumann (1810-56) would become a ranking symphonist and writer of chamber music. His track record was mostly restricted to brief aphoristic piano pieces threaded into cycles via extra-musical associations and/or narrative threads. But his marriage to the young pianist Clara Wieck, achieved only after a torrent of legal resistance by her disapproving father, served as a catalyst to Schumann, who over the next decade transformed himself into not only one of greatest of all song composers but also a master of the larger genres à la Beethoven.
Of particular consequence was Schumann’s friendship with Felix Mendelssohn, that paragon of structural integrity who wrote finely-crafted symphonies, oratorios, and chamber music while honing the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra into one of Europe’s finest. The twin influences of Clara—a sterling musician herself—and Mendelssohn urged Schumann into an extended period of symphonic and chamber writing. All in all, from the 1840s to early 1850s he produced four some-odd symphonies, three each string quartets and piano trios, a piano quintet and piano quartet, and assorted pieces for cello, oboe, clarinet, and horn, in addition to songs, more piano works, concertos, several oratorios, a musical setting of Faust, and even the opera Genoveva—quite an achievement for a composer whose thinking had formerly run more towards pithy pianistic epigrams.
In 1850 Schumann took up the baton as musical director of the orchestra at Düsseldorf, a situation he first viewed with delight but that quickly turned to ash as his limitations as a conductor, together with his steadily deteriorating mental health, incited opposition from the musicians and dissatisfaction from the public. This disheartening period, leading to his confinement and eventual death at age forty-six in a sanitarium, is the time of his final violin works, including the fascinating late Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor of 1851.
Many of Schumann’s later works are distinguished by their emotional compression and their tendency to focus on single themes or motives, a practice dubbed monothematicism. That’s particularly true of the A minor Sonata in its outer movements, which display a finely sustained and powerful affect throughout via sharply limited thematic contrast. The first movement, marked in vintage Schumann style to be played “with passionate expression,” surges along in fine darkness, its low violin tessitura invoking the sound of the viola while the piano thrums along in a similar register. To be sure, that creates balance problems between the two instruments, but in the service of an extraordinarily cohesive overall sonority.
The second-place Allegretto harkens back in some ways to Schumann’s earlier piano music in its short phrases, frequent tempo changes, metric ambiguity, and its subtle aura of emotional inquietude made all the more vivid by an animated gypsy-like episode that comes and goes, almost as a furtive smile through tears.
The finale begins as a perpetual motion affair that bears a distant resemblance to Schumann’s virtuoso early Toccata for Piano. Here the two instruments lob ideas back and forth amid a shower of rapid notes, but broken by an amorously lyrical passage in major mode that provides a glimpse of light amid the prevailing minor-key darkness. A momentary reference to the opening movement—really just a faint whiff of a recollection—leads to the impassioned, driving final statements.—Scott Foglesong
Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.
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