Schumann wrote his Cello Concerto in 1850 in Düsseldorf. He had moved there to be music director of the city’s orchestra, which would have been a great career move had he been a skilled conductor or mentally capable of concentrating on his duties. He was neither and didn’t last long in the job. (He completed the draft of his Cello Concerto on the day of his debut as conductor in Düsseldorf.)
He offered the Concerto to two publishers who were not interested, despite Schumann’s pointing out that it was likely to sell well because cello concertos were in short supply. He made the same point to a third publisher, Breitkopf & Härtel, but added that the Concerto “ist ein durchaus heiteres Stück” — quite a “cheerful” or “jolly” piece. This was stretching the truth at best, but Breitkopf bought the Concerto. Even as Schumann began his final descent into madness and death in 1854, he was correcting the proofs.
It must have taken a long time for Breitkopf to recoup its investment; Schumann’s Concerto was not premiered until 1860 and was rarely performed until the end of the century.
Schumann, concerned that the orchestra not drown out the cello, wrote a solo part that rarely strays from the instrument’s middle and upper register. Large stretches, including all but the last bar of the slow movement, could be played on a viola (the viola’s strings are tuned an octave higher than the cello’s), and on the infrequent occasions when the cello needs its lowest string, the orchestration is light, or the cello is playing alone.
The Concerto’s form lies somewhere between three movements played without pause and one continuous movement. The first “movement” does not so much end as slow down and dissolve into the slow movement nocturne. There, woodwind chords echo the first movement, and the first movement’s principal theme returns to begin an acceleration into the energetic march-like finale. — Howard Posner