Finding Schumann's Lost Violin Concerto
Seventy-five years ago today, on December 6, 1937, violinist Yehudi Menuhin gave the first American performance of a "lost" violin concerto by the great German composer Robert Schumann at Carnegie Hall. The last major work to be completed by Schumann before he succumbed to mental illness, his Violin Concerto in D Minor remained unheard for more than 80 years after he completed it in a three-week burst of creativity in September 1853. Very few musical works can lay claim to as twisted a trail from composition to first performance.
Schumann originally wrote the concerto for his friend, the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim, who played through the work in private for the composer but never performed it. After Schumann's death in July 1856, Joachim held on to the score for the rest of his life, refusing—with the consent of Schumann's widow, Clara—to perform it or allow it to be published. Having witnessed Schumann slipping into the psychosis that led to his attempted suicide and eventual death, Joachim was convinced the work was the inferior product of a diseased mind and not representative of Schumann's best work.
After Joachim's death in 1907, his son sold the manuscript to the Prussian State Library in Berlin, with instructions that it was not to be published until the centenary of Schumann's death—almost a half century hence. The Violin Concerto languished there until 1933, when Joachim's great niece Jelly d'Arányi—also a noted violinist—claimed she was visited by the spirit of Schumann during a séance, and that he had directed her to uncover the work and perform it. When she attempted to do so, the German government intervened, claiming copyright and insisting the premiere be given in Germany by a German; the first performance was given by violinist Georg Kulenkampff and the Berlin Philharmonic in November 1937.
Earlier the same year, Yehudi Menuhin received a copy of the score from the music publisher Schott, asking for his opinion on the work. Menuhin became an immediate champion of the neglected, almost totally unknown concerto, declaring in a letter to conductor Vladimir Golschmann that the score was "as romantic, heroic, supplicating, and tender as when it was not yet dry." Menuhin added, "This concerto is the historically missing link of the violin literature; it is the bridge between the Beethoven and the Brahms concertos." Thanks to his efforts, American audiences heard the Schumann Violin Concerto for the first time at Carnegie Hall on December 6, 1937—albeit only with the piano accompaniment of Ferguson Webster. Menuhin gave the first American performance with orchestra two weeks later in St. Louis, with Golschmann and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
Initially, critics tended to agree with Joachim's assessment that the Violin Concerto was an inferior work. Reviewing Menuhin's Carnegie Hall performance, Olin Downes of the The New York Times wrote, "it is a very weak composition," and that it "shows a failing inspiration and lack of strength."
Pages from the souvenir program from the December 6, 1937, US premiere of Schumann's Violin Concerto by Yehudi Menuhin accompanied by Ferguson Webster. On the right is a reproduction of a letter from Menuhin to conductor Vladimir Golschmann about the concerto. Click images to enlarge. Courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Archives.
The work has gone on to receive just five further performances since Menuhin's premiere—two of those by Menuhin himself with the New York Philharmonic a few months later in January 1938. Twenty-three years would pass before the next performance at the Hall, with violinist Henryk Szeryng and the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Munch—a relatively brief hiatus considering it took another 42 years for the concerto to gain another hearing, with conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch leading The Philadelphia Orchestra and violinist Leonidas Kavakos in 2003. The most recent Carnegie Hall performance was by violinist Gidon Kremer—a modern champion of the work—as part of a Schumann cycle presented by Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin in January 2004.
The passing of 75 years—together with a return to more faithful, less heavily edited versions of the score and closer adherence to Schumann's tempos—has tempered opinions to the point that the Violin Concerto has now fully entered the violin repertory and is recognized as one of Schumann's most moving works.
Related: Hall History