Sunday 22 April 2018

Classical: Séance that brought Schumann's violin concerto back to life

Prolific: Robert Schumann completed the concerto in three weeks
Prolific: Robert Schumann completed the concerto in three weeks

George Hamilton

There cannot be many more bizarre stories than the one about the only violin concerto that Robert Schumann ever wrote. An exceptional tunesmith, he began composing for the piano, branched into song when at his happiest around the time of his marriage to Clara Wieck. His gorgeous piano concerto was for her to play. There was a cello concerto, too, as well as four symphonies and chamber and choral music on top. Schumann was prolific.

He had a line to the star performers of the day, one of whom was Joseph Joachim, the top violinist then, the mid-19th century, the height of the Romantic movement.

Schumann was only in his 40s when his mental health began to deteriorate. It was around this time that he set about composing a concerto for Joachim. He'd already written for the virtuoso and this was to be his crowning achievement for the violin.

It was completed in just three weeks, and Joachim arranged for it to be played in private for Schumann to hear.

Not long after, the composer attempted to end his life by jumping off a bridge into the River Rhine. He was rescued by fishermen, but subsequently had himself admitted to a private psychiatric hospital.

This turn of events convinced Joachim, out of deference to Schumann, not to proceed with either publication or performance, and he retained the manuscript.

In his will, Joachim stipulated that the piece was not to be played until a hundred years after the composer's death, which would have meant it would not have been heard until 1956.

But events took a strange turn. In 1930s London, a noted violinist by the name of Jelly d'Arányi, who happened to be Joachim's great-niece, was a guest at a séance hosted by Sweden's Ambassador to the United Kingdom.

Through the medium, they were directed to seek out Robert Schumann's unpublished concerto. Sceptics suggested Jelly must have known about it through her great-uncle, but she insisted it was all news to her.

A further message, this time supposedly from Joachim, sent the diplomat - a Baron Erik Kule Palmstierna - off to Berlin in search of the music, and it was duly located in the Prussian State Library.

Then things got a little complicated. The young Yehudi Menuhin got wind of it and wanted to give it its première, but Jelly reckoned she should have first crack at it.

Hitler's Nazi government intervened, saying that as the copyright was German, they would have the final say. Joachim's 100-year embargo was quietly forgotten.

For them, the Schumann concerto was a godsend. They'd banned the music of Felix Mendelssohn, a Jew, which included his masterful violin concerto. Now they had a replacement.

Georg Kulenkampff, a virtuoso from Bremen in the north-west of the country - and most importantly, an Aryan - who'd had Menuhin as one of his pupils - would give Schumann's piece its première with the Berlin Philharmonic under Karl Böhm.

The concert, presided over by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, took place at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin on November 26, 1937.

Yehudi Menuhin got to give the work its first outing in the USA, in Carnegie Hall, while Jelly d'Arányi was first to play it in England. For Menuhin, it represented the missing link, as he put it, in the line that runs through the violin repertoire from Beethoven to Brahms.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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