How Schumann’s Madness Changed History

We’re still waiting, so here’s some more musical diversion: my article from the Standpoint May issue about how Schumann’s mental malady may just have changed the course of musical history.

With relevance to it, here’s the slow movement of his Violin Concerto, hushed up for decades by Clara and Joachim who deemed it unworthy of the great man’s genius and were afraid that if people heard it they’d think he was nuts (he probably was, but that’s not the point). This despite Joachim having given a couple of performances of it during Schumann’s lifetime, and having expressed some enthusiasm for the piece. I find it peculiar, haunting, unforgettable – listen for the way he seems to hint, rather than state, the theme. Was Schumann losing his way? Or trying to find a different one?

This performance is from the concerto’s second-ever recording, by Yehudi Menuhin, with the New York Philharmonic under Sir John Barbirolli in February 1938. The work had languished in a Berlin library until 1933 when Jelly d’Aranyi tracked it down after – I kid you not – apparent exchanges with Schumann and her great-uncle Joachim in some London seances. Menuhin soon got wind of the work’s existence, too, but the Nazis ruled Berlin and wanted a non-Jewish German to give the premiere…so George Kulenkampf did the honours. But Menuhin comes closest to making the work succeed, out of anybody in history: heartbreaking tenderness and poetry are embedded in his tone…

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