Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo cello
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 20, 1932, with soloist Ilya Bronson, Artur Rodzinski conducting
In 1849 Schumann was offered the post of music director of the Düsseldorf Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, of which Mendelssohn and Schumann’s friend, the composer-conductor Ferdinand Hiller, had been among the previous directors. Although he had been seeking this kind of post – for which in reality he had little aptitude – Schumann did not immediately accept since he had doubts about the relocation from Dresden for a family of seven – himself, wife Clara, and their five children. But the greatest worry for the sensitive and already mentally unstable composer, which he would not express even to Clara, was his knowledge that there was an insane asylum in the Rhenish city (he would die in just such an institution, in Endenich, near Bonn, in 1856). “I have to guard against all melancholy impressions,” he wrote to Hiller, “for we musicians often dwell on sunny heights, yet when the misery of life comes before us in all its naked ugliness, it hurts us all the more.”
Clara, however, wanted to get out of Dresden, which she found stiflingly conservative in its social customs and artistic tastes. She also wanted Robert – who had recently reached his 40th birthday – to occupy a position of importance, to boost his own self-esteem and to help fill the family’s depleted coffers.
So, on September 1, 1850, the entire brood arrived in Düsseldorf. Schumann’s fears of a cool reception in an unfamiliar environment and the chance of, again, sinking into depression, proved without foundation. The city welcomed him royally and Clara, who already had a formidable reputation as a pianist, was deluged with offers of teaching positions and recitals. Schumann, to his own surprise, found the new post to his liking, and during that first year in Düsseldorf he was able not only to fulfill his official functions but also to set aside a few hours each day for composing. During the months that remained of 1850 he produced the justly admired “Rhenish” Symphony and the Cello Concerto, and began the still undervalued Scenes from Goethe’s Faust. The songs of that year and the next, however, disclose the structural meandering and the (probably unintentionally) unsettled harmonies that signal the underlying fragility of the composer’s mental state.
The Cello Concerto, while it does not possess – or strive for – the ebullience of youth, projects a gentle, melancholy lyricism that is more wistful than tragic. The three movements are cleverly melded into one, the highlight being the sweetly consoling middle “movement,” in F major. The sort of thematic metamorphosis, or linkage, that one usually finds in such three-movements-in-one compositions (including Schumann’s own Piano Concerto) is not employed here: each movement presents discrete thematic material.
Herbert Glass, after serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera, was for 25 years a critic / columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He has also written for the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and for periodicals in Europe and the United States. He recently completed his 15th season as English-language editor / annotator for the Salzburg Festival.