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Sonata No. 1 in A minor, Op. 105 for violin and piano

May 6, 2018: Clara Neubauer, violin; Anne-Marie McDermott, piano

In August 1850 Schumann arrived in Düsseldorf amid great fanfare to take up the position of town music director. By the next season, however, problems had developed with management and musicians alike, augmented by his progressing mental illness. Nevertheless, he strove to improve the town’s musical life by organizing a small select group of singers and a short-lived ensemble of instrumentalists. Thus in the fall of 1851 he had vocal and instrumental chamber music on his mind.

The time was now ripe to act on an 1850 request by Ferdinand David, concertmaster of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig for a violin and piano piece. Schumann composed his first violin sonata—A minor, op. 105—between September 12 and 16, 1851, and after a pause to write the G minor Piano Trio, continued with a second—D minor, op. 121—between October 26 and November 2.

Clara Schumann, her husband’s greatest champion and interpreter, immediately learned the piano part and played the first private performance of the A minor Violin Sonata on October 16 with Wilhelm Joseph von Wasielewski, Robert’s talented young concertmaster. She wrote in her diary: “We were particularly moved by the very elegiac first movement and the lovely second movement.” The third movement, she said, caused them some difficulties, and though they played it through three more times Wasielewski reported that they were unable to convey its “brusque tone” to the composer’s satisfaction.

The first public performance took place on March 29 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus with David, who had first suggested such a work, and he received the dedication when Schumann published it in 1852. Clara continued to play the piece after her husband’s death, most often with the rising young star Joseph Joachim.

Schumann’s first movement, designated “With passionate expression,” sets a mood of quiet unrest with the main theme beginning in the violin’s low, throaty range. Throughout the piano does not merely “arpeggiate,” but exhibits the distinctive multiple voices and textures that are quintessentially Schumann. A special feature of this movement is the masterful blurring of the border between development and recapitulation that became such a Romantic art.

The Allegretto shows the intimate charm of many of Schumann’s piano miniatures. Twice he interrupts with contrasting episodes—the first in the contemplative manner of Eusebius, the introverted fictional character of his prose and musical writings, and the second à la Florestan, his happy, extroverted persona.

The finale cavorts like a scherzo, but with a demonic cast, as opposed to the elfin scherzos characteristic of Schumann’s contemporary Mendelssohn. A wonderful major-mode middle episode imparts a lyrical warmth to offset the more “brusque” drive of the main theme. Toward the end Schumann shows his concern for unity across movements by reintroducing the low restless main theme of the first movement before the final fiendish push to the close.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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