Cello Concerto (Schumann)
The Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129, by Robert Schumann was completed in a period of only two weeks, between 10 October and 24 October 1850, shortly after Schumann became the music director at Düsseldorf.
The concerto was never played in Schumann's lifetime. It was premiered on 9 June 1860, four years after his death, at the Leipzig Conservatory in a concert in honour of the 50th anniversary of Schumann's birth, with Ludwig Ebert as soloist.
The length of a typical performance is about 25 minutes.
The piece is in three movements, which follow on from each other without a pause:
Written late in his short life, the concerto is considered one of Schumann's more enigmatic works due to its structure, the length of the exposition, and the transcendental quality of the opening as well as the intense lyricism of the second movement. On the autographed score, Schumann gave the title Konzertstück (concert piece) rather than Konzert (concerto), which suggested he intended to depart from the traditional conventions of a concerto from the very beginning. (It is notable that Schumann's earlier piano concerto in the same key was also originally written as a concert piece.)
Consistent with many of Schumann's other works, the concerto utilizes both fully realized and fragmentary thematic material introduced in the first movement, material which is then quoted and developed throughout. Together with the concerto's relatively short, linked movements, the concerto is thus extremely unified both in material and in character, although the work's emotional scope is very wide. Schumann's use of the same themes but in very different contexts and moods lends the cello concerto a strong sense of character development and an extended emotional arc, from its opening measures vacillating between deeply meditative and agitated to the brilliant, affirmative conclusion.
The first movement of the concerto begins with a very short orchestral introduction followed by the presentation of the main theme by the soloist, which in turn is followed by a short tutti that leads into a lyrical melody.
The second movement is a very short lyrical movement in which the soloist occasionally uses double stops. It also features a descending fifth, a gesture used throughout the piece as a signal and homage to his wife, Clara Schumann. Also, the soloist has a duet with the principal cellist, an unusual texture and one that could be interpreted as a conversation between Clara and the composer.
The third movement is a lighter, yet resolute rondo. At the end of the movement, there is an accompanied in-tempo cadenza, something unprecedented in Schumann's day; this cadenza leads into the final coda in which Schumann changes the mode to A-major. In recent years, some cellists have chosen instead to include their own unaccompanied cadenza, although there is no indication that Schumann wished for one.
Schumann famously abhorred receiving applause between movements. As a result, there are no breaks between any of the movements in the concerto; indeed, Schumann's skill in handling the two transitions between the three movements are among the concerto's most striking features. As for the concerto's virtuosity, Schumann earlier in his life declared "I cannot write a concerto for the virtuosos. I must try for something else"; in the cello concerto, while exploiting the instrument to the fullest, the writing for the soloist generally avoids virtuosic display prominent in many concertos of the time.
Although the cello concerto is now performed with some regularity, the work spent many decades in obscurity, virtually unknown. Schumann was unable to secure a premier of the work and initial reactions to his score were mostly very negative. This may have been in part due to the work's unusual structure as well as the personal, inward nature of the music and the lack of passages written to display the technical skill of the cello soloist; however, it may also be argued that it is these very qualities as well as Schumann's conception of the concerto that make the work so singular and admirable. As is often the case with the music of Schumann, the concerto, while offering more than ample technical demands, also requires an interpreter of the highest order and while criticism of the work persists, some cellists place the Schumann concerto alongside the cello concertos of Dvorak and Elgar in a group of three great Romantic works for their instrument.