The Story of the Violin Concerto
Earlier in 1853, Schumann had already written the Fantasy Op. 131 which delighted the young Joachim for whom it was written. That work, which allows the soloist to show off his virtuosity to good effect, was also well received by the public.
Again with Joachim in mind, already suffering from the mental illness which was to end his life, and in an energetic spurt no doubt influenced by his frame of mind, Schumann wrote the Violin Concerto, his last major work, in under a week - from 27th September to October 3rd 1853. Joachim suggested some refinements, which Schumann accepted and the work was to be premiered in Dusseldorf where Schumann was Musical Director. However, within a very short period Schumann had to step down from that post, and plans for a premiere abandoned. Thus it was for organisational reasons rather than rejection that the work was never played during Schumann's lifetime.
After Schumann's death Clara and Joachim changed their minds. They decided, for whatever reasons, that the concerto was unworthy of Schumann (definitely not true) and the work of a deranged mind (possibly true, but so what?) So it was never published. Joachim is reputed to have played it to friends on occasion, and in 1898 wrote to his biographer, Andreas Moser, who had asked for information on "a violin concerto by Schumann". Joachim confirmed he had the manuscript, but insisted it should remain hidden mainly because of the unforgiving and unfriendly solo part. His complaint was that the solo part is very hard (as it is) and ineffective (i.e.. lacking virtuosity). It's interesting the same complaints were made later about Brahms' Violin Concerto.
When Joachim died in 1907, he left the score to the Prussian State Library in Berlin, with the proviso that it should not be published until a hundred years after Schumann's death, i.e.. 1956. I want to emphasise that the concerto wasn't lost, as has often been written, merely largely forgotten; a few people knew it both existed and where it was.
This is where things get, frankly, bizarre. The Hungarian violinist Jelly d'Aranyi was a spiritualist. She claimed that she had been visited by the spirit of Joachim (her Great Uncle) and Schumann who told her of the concerto's existence, urging her to find it and revive it. This she managed to do, persuading the curators of the library to overturn the publishing ban and allow the work to be performed despite the initial obstructive attitude of the Nazi government. They came to realise the propaganda value of such a performance; the work could take the place of the banned Mendelssohn Concerto.
The task was put into the hands of the respected violinist Georg Kulenkampff. As the work was unplayable as written (!) Paul Hindemith revised it. The first performance took place on November 26th 1937 with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Karl Bohm, and a recording was made (with Hans Schmit-Isserstedt conducting) soon after, which is on YouTube. Even allowing for the fact that this is a first performance, I think it's a poor effort. Nobody involved seems to have the faintest idea what Schumann was trying to say. The first movement is much too fast and some passages omitted altogether, and whilst the slow movement is acceptable the finale is a travesty, taken at a wild pace and the solo part altered beyond belief.
Meanwhile, in the US, Yehudi Menuhin (a Jew) was trying to stage a coup to beat the Germans to a first performance. He missed out, and his first full performance was given on December 23rd 1937. He too, made a recording, available on YouTube. Although still extensively revised, Menuhin's version is truer to Schumann's original than Kulenkampff's and, of the two, is the one I prefer.
Having served its purpose, the concerto was then largely forgotten again. There were to be no more recordings until 1951, followed by a couple in the 1960s and 1970s. By the mid-1980s, it was becoming better known, with more recordings and performances, but generally the attitude was that the performers were doing the world a favour by attempting the impossible to keep the work from slipping into obscurity again.
In the last 15 years, I'm glad to say, much has changed. No longer, when I speak of my love for the work, am I told either "I didn't know Schumann wrote a violin concerto" or "it's unplayable". Now, with several passionate and sympathetic recordings of the original score available, the still-used phrases "little known" and "seldom performed" no longer apply. I am no longer considered as mad as Schumann for loving it.
Next Page: Peter Rybar and his 1951 recording