Interpretational insights into the first movement of a work written by a musical genius with an increasingly unsettled mind


Photo ©Lennard Ruehle

Something special happened when I was in the studio recording the Schumann sonatas with my pianist, Dénes Várjon. We were so in paradise over those two days that I didn’t care if anybody liked it or not. Every time I hear two notes of Schumann I’m pulled in right away. When I touch his music I feel so close to him and this special language.

I find it interesting how late in his life Schumann discovered the violin: he wrote the First (op.105) and Second Sonatas in 1851; the Violin Concerto and the Third Sonata in 1853; and in 1856 he died. The First Sonata is the most ‘sane’, if you can talk of sanity in Schumann’s music; the second is huge – so big and grand, with an almost-broken fragility in the minimalistic second movement, as though he didn’t care if anyone heard it or not. It was not written to please anybody: it was something he needed to write for himself, to survive.

Clara Schumann said the Third Sonata was the work of a sick man. She was ashamed of it and many people even today say it has no context, as though it is falling apart.

Carolin Widmann box

Historical background

Schumann so often broke the rules and didn’t do what tradition asked of him in form or in harmony. This is Classical–Romantic music, but not in the way you might expect: it’s the opposite of feel-good, lean back and relax music. He wrote the Second Sonata just before he sent himself to Endenich psychiatric ward and I feel that he could already sense something losing balance inside himself.

In his letters he writes so proudly about how strong and stable he is at this time and I can feel those words in the absolute strength and straightness of the opening chords, before the music breaks down to reveal his true self. He was struggling with something, losing the stability under his feet, and he couldn’t quite admit it yet.

There’s a heartbreaking book, Robert Schumann in Endenich, by Bernhard R. Appel, about Schumann’s time in the mental hospital. The doctors were so cruel: they drilled holes in his skull and drained it, and it then became infected. He went through so much unnecessary torture. Reading this has made me even more connected with his music.

The opening

I rarely dare to play this sonata to open a concert. It feels better to play a few pieces before it, so that I am in the flow already and able to set the tempo with the pianist, with complete focus. The opening chords look so simple, but to get them together with the piano is so difficult! When I play this with pianist Alexander Lonquich, we close our eyes before we go on stage, and count through the opening bars together in quavers. If we don’t feel these bars together, the impact of the chords will be much weaker, but if we come in perfectly together, the impact is devastating.

All of a sudden, in bar 5, you’re alone on the octave A, trying to express the world and eternity in just one bow. Time stops there, after the measured chords of the previous bars, and now there is emptiness. With the sighing violin cadenza that rises out of it and sighs back down, I feel I have to tell the whole tale of life in a few notes. You have just one bow and one instrument to tell a story of 10,000 shades of happiness, sadness and colour.

Schumann cover

To see the marked-up sheet music, in association with Henle Verlag, download The Strad’s November 2018 issue on desktop computer or via the The Strad App, or buy the print edition

Tempo and pulse

Some people push passionately forward at the Lebhaft (bar 21), but this is a misunderstanding: it is not like Mendelssohn, which so often flees and runs ahead with joy. With Schumann there is huge resistance: nothing flows easily forward and there’s always doubt. All the off-beats mean we don’t always have a clear pulse and it can be difficult to know what to hold on to. Just like his personality, it is wobbly the whole time, with no ground to stand on; always breathing in but never exhaling, not quite knowing where to go.

There can be a danger of rushing through the off-beats. The second danger is to be metronomic. That’s a deadly sin: when you play a melody in Schumann, to be metronomic is to bring death to the phrase. Time is not a regular substance here: it is not clock time, but Einstein time, warped with black holes and so many dimensions filled with depth and character.

In bars 55–56, for example, hold back a little bit. Here Schumann is finally coming out of this breathless, nervous feeling into an oasis, a paradise where we can relax. You can really feel the longing, as though you are closing your eyes to imagine how you wish everything would be, but you know it is not that way – and then from bar 68 everything starts to fall apart again. I love this part, and also the parallel passage in bars 223–225, where the incredible harmonic changes take you so far from earth that you wonder how you will ever get back. I stay on the lower strings where I can, stretching without changes of position, so that I don’t interrupt the line or make it unnecessarily sentimental.

In bar 57 Schumann writes ‘Im tempo’, not ‘a tempo’, which means you can choose any tempo you like, I think. To me it just means, ‘Don’t slack off’! Then in 78–79 we have two forte–piano octave leaps. It’s like a code to tell you to take time: those two bars are isolated islands of time, out of the 4/4 scheme. Both leaps are on the second beat, but the articulation is different, which suggests that he wants this to be played in a free, improvised way.

From bar 86 the accents are firstly on the third and fourth beats, then on the second, then second and fourth. Then in bars 90–92 the beat gets completely lost, until the chords set us straight again in bar 93. When there is strictness again, for example from bar 261 where the opening chords come back, we have to be super strict and metronomic, so that it sounds razor sharp. From bar 267 we then go back to the swimming notion of time again.

It is important that these sections are in balance, not random. It’s very clear in Schumann’s musical language where we should be metronomic and where we should use rubato. It can help to hear Schumann’s songs sung by singers who have really mastered this sense of timing. The more you hear his music, the more you will understand how his language works.

Use your imagination

If you’re not a storyteller, forget about Schumann: every note has to be imbued with stories. You need an incredible imagination, to challenge yourself and ask, ‘What do I want to say?’

For example, what sort of sound do you want to make at the beginning? I find the piano part unsettling here so to me it’s not appropriate to make a beautiful sound. I use less vibrato and a contact point towards the fingerboard. Then I use a lot of open strings in the low-register theme of the Lebhaft, to make the sound resonant and open. I love to use the open E – especially since I’ve been playing on gut strings and a Baroque violin. It has a mellow, soft quality. But perhaps you imagine the sound world in a different way.

Imagination is important, but don’t try to create meaning where there is none. From bars 97 to 154 there are long, muted, murky, searching passages that don’t go anywhere or find anything, until a complete break after bar 154. This is a feature, so let’s stand by it and celebrate it! Why would I try to help Schumann to make the music sound like it’s going somewhere when it isn’t? He’s searching, he’s not sure. To make the dead end look like a fantastic way to go is not authentic.

Articulation and bowing

Carats and dots are some of the most misunderstood markings. They are not always short and harsh; here they should be played softly on the string, articulated but never spiky. They are more like a type of brush stroke, with air and poetry in them. Similarly sforzato is an emotional emphasis that could mean anything – it doesn’t have to mean that you put a lot of weight into your bow. Too often we take away our own freedom in music, by using rules that limit our imaginations. In the coda from bar 280 and following, there are many ways to use the bow for the sforzatos and swells of the schneller as you rush towards the end.

The last note is a big challenge for me: I never have enough bow so I try to save, save, save, but I am never satisfied with it. I want to play a chord that is strong from beginning to end, and even stronger in the last quarter of the bow, but once you reach the top two notes you have already spent a quarter of a bow, so what can you do? It’s not an option to use two bows – that would be completely out of line. I feel that I want to have at least 3cm more! It’s always a compromise and I’ll let you know if I ever find a solution. There are a few spots in the violin repertoire where I think, ‘Maybe I’ll die before I master that,’ and this is one of them!

On Schumann

Many people don’t play Schumann because they don’t appreciate it, partly because it challenges the concept we have of violinistic virtuosity. If I play the Mendelssohn Concerto I get much more applause than when I play the Schumann Concerto, which is just not as virtuosic – or at least not the cliché of virtuosic that we have in the Tchaikovsky or the Brahms.

The ending in particular is confusing and not the typically heroic ending that people want to hear: it’s more, ‘What is going on?’ – it’s really strange. It’s a different kind of virtuosity and I think people have to be ready for it. People who can look beyond the surface will find much in it, beyond what they are used to from a violin concerto.

It’s often in a low register, so it’s not as brilliant and it doesn’t please people. It’s dark, almost like a viola piece. That’s also why it’s not popular with the pedagogues, because it’s a bit strange.

The Brahms Sonatas are much easier to digest and Schumann tends to be overlooked. I still talk to colleagues now who say, ‘Why do you play that? It’s so weird!’ First a teacher has to love it with all the passion they can find, and then that will transfer to their students.

Today, in my class at Leipzig’s University of Music and Theatre ‘Felix Mendelssohn Bartholody’, the Schumann sonatas are as popular as the Brahms sonatas when it comes to the German Romantic repertoire. In Germany the Schumann Concerto is also being played much more now than it used to be.

I do understand why people are critical of Schumann’s music, but I think if you open it up you will see so much more than you could ever have imagined.

To see the marked-up sheet music, in association with Henle Verlag, download The Strad’s November 2018 issue on desktop computer or via the The Strad App, or buy the print edition