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Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129 (1850), 25 minutes

Robert Schumann was born on June 8, 1810 in Zwickau and died on July 29, 1856 in Endenich, near Bonn. The Cello Concerto was first performed on June 9, 1860 in Leipzig, with soloist Ludwig Ebert. The work is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo cello.

In 1850, virtuosic cello concertos were popular and in-demand, and Schumann had moved to Düsseldorf to take up a new post as the city’s municipal music director, a positive move, initially, that would produce in addition to the Cello Concerto, his Symphony No.3 (Rhenish).


Concertos, on the surface, serve as a vehicle to showcase the musicality and virtuosity of a single individual, and for a composer itʻs an opportunity to speak through a singular musical voice combining the might of an orchestral force with the intimacy and intricacy of the one. The concerto and specifically the cello concerto, comes with challenges: balancing virtuosity with musicality, and careful orchestration to ensure the solo projects through the orchestra. Both of these concerns are immediately clear in Schumannʻs Concerto. There is poetry in this music and musicality takes priority, virtuosity for its own sake is seldom territory in any of Schumannʻs work and likely a reason the Concerto was unable to secure a premiere in his lifetime, nor positive review afterwards.


Abandoning an independent three-movement structure, the Concerto plays in one-continuos movement with three large sections that act as “movements”, a narrative and tone-poem like journey with the cello embodying a myriad of possible roles, as prophet to the people, master to apprentice, as parent to child, or of one grappling and conversing with inner demons and angels.


Scored for a sizable orchestra, the soloist always occupies the mid to high register, pontificating and projecting from above in its strident and powerful tessitura. A general rule of orchestration is to never have anything sounding above the main line or for all instruments to avoid its proximity like fire. Only descending gingerly to the earthlier bass regions, Schumann thins the heard with silence and sparseness as though clearing the path. In the company of a select few instruments, the soloist is at first largely supported by a select few, itʻs followers or disciples, its people, the strings. As the work progresses, more instruments become devoted followers joining the cello in a delicately crafted congregation.


A brief three chords in the woodwinds open Nicht zu schnell, and the cello quickly begins its dark sermon of melodic poetry that rises and falls in serpentine contours, dipping into a D# that will give the tune a rich sigh of pathos. Upward arpeggiating gestures and later giant ascending scales whip a subdued string accompaniment awake and then the full orchestra into consciousness. The strings continue their delicate punctuations, and a lighter capricious triplet musing in the solo lures the woodwinds to join their string comrades. If the soloist is a teacher, the ensuing music will unveil the orchestra answering the master’s riddles and questions, taking parts of the triplet rhythms to mull and study. 


A lengthly development-like section explores the master probing the orchestra to answer correctly, sometimes with more insistence and repetition and other times with the sighs and frustrations of learning pains. And what is the answer that is sought? To speak with the same melody, affirmation of its identity as a parent to the child’s first word. The cello restates the melody and it reappears in fragments and sequences, with more urging, and the orchestra still does not answer in the return, until the horns begin to utter some semblance of it, but falling short of the full word. What can the music do but bring about a recapitulation for a second lesson.


Ultimately the orchestra does not answer in the affirmative, much to the chagrin of the parent, and so, enter the second “movement.” Pizzicato accompaniment harkens a soothing Langsam melody in a tender duo between the cello mother and her children, the cello section. Double-stops (playing two-notes at the same time) lend an air of harmonious lullaby and serenity capturing a motherly warmth and affection. 


Suddenly, without warning, the flutes speak the main theme, and the solo quickly finishes the sentence in contentment and of course, asking for more, to say more. There is agitation and electricity sparking in the fibers of the orchestra with imitation; Rhythms, small words, first in the flutes, then in the cello and basses, it is infectious, it is success, and a brief spiral down scaler passages act as a measured pre-cadenza transition into the “third” movement.


Still in the key of A-minor, a new world of possibility and complexity opens in the final march to the end marked Sehr lebhaft, as the orchestra, now more integrated and imitative, begins to have full conversations of call and response and imitation with the master. Unleashing a barrage of 16th notes and triplet rhythms, the solo is ever-testing and always teaching. A brief cadenza consisting of two leapy ascending phrases unlocks a portal to a new dimension, a coda in A major and a final stretch of virtuosity to close in celebration. If the concerto offers the poetry of master to pupil or parent to child, there is a stumble to grace narrative, beginning with multiplication and ending in an elation of musical trigonometry.


Rejected by several publishers, Schumann described the work as “ist ein durchaus heiteres Stück” — a “cheerful” piece to entice its publication. That describes by omission, only the last few minutes of the work. The work is tinged in dark and haunting color and lyricism. Schumann’s initial time in Düsseldorf was auspicious but it gradually deteriorated and perhaps this grappling with seriousness and hope in the Concerto, was a harbinger of things to come. The 1850’s would mark a downward spiral for Schumann’s mental health and he would eventually be committed to asylum in 1853, passing several years after, never hearing the concerto in performance. © MTF

*Digitally published for the Hawaiʻi Symphony Sheraton Starlight Series on May 21-23, 2021.

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