Last week the exceptionally talented, young conductor, Tito Muñoz led the Richmond Symphony in a memorable concert which included Robert Schumann’s Fourth Symphony. Returning to this symphony, I was reminded of the subtle sense of schizophrenia that often inhabits Schumann’s music. For example, in the first theme of the Fourth Symphony’s opening movement, listen to the way the music develops through obsessive rhythmic repetition. The restless eight-note motive that makes up this theme haunts the entire first movement, twisting and evolving throughout the development section. It resurfaces in the bridge to the final movement (a nod to Beethoven’s Fifth), as if to say, “You can’t escape me…I’m still here!”
Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor, op. 105 develops with a similarly stormy, obsessive intensity. For the first movement, rather than a standard tempo marking like “Allegro,” Schumann provides the words, Mit leidenschaftlichem Ausdruck (with passionate expression). The opening motive begins in the depths of the violin amid tempestuous piano arpeggios. It reaches tentatively, falls back and reaches again before soaring higher. Listen to the conversation between the violin and piano as the motive is passed back and forth. This is a persistent conversation which becomes increasingly intense (listen to the piano at 1:02). There’s a strong sense of striving, and by the end of the exposition a few hints of sunlight have appeared (1:58). But then we get pulled back into the depths. One of my favorite moments in this first movement is the way we return from the development to the recapitulation (5:40).
Listen for the stormy, obsessive development of the opening motive and enjoy the incredible drama which unfolds in this first movement. Here are Japanese violinist Shoji Sayaka and pianist Itamar Golan in recital at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall in 2005:
Here are the second and third movements. In the second movement (Allegretto), the musical conversation seems to end frequently in a question. You may hear passages which anticipate Johannes Brahms’ violin sonatas.
The A minor Violin Sonata was first performed publicly by Clara Schumann and the German violinist Ferdinand David in March, 1852. David worked closely with Felix Mendelssohn, influencing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.
- Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich: find on iTunes, find at Amazon, listen to a sample
- Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt: a new recording, released in 2013. Find on iTunes
- Carolin Widmann and Denes Varjon: find at Amazon
- Ilya Kaler and Boris Slutsky: find at Naxos
- Augustin Hadelich and Akira Eguchi perform the first movement: youtube
1 thought on “Schumann’s First Violin Sonata: Passionate, Tempestuous”
Dear Timothy ~
Having just sent off a video DVD, of Master Classes I presented in London on Schumann’s absolutely fantastic Sonata in a minor for Violin and Piano, once again you have posted a piece of Music very much on my mind as of late, which I know so well and love ever more as the years pass … It requires the deepest passion and perfected intonation during the pouring forth of this mysterious and inflamed ardour. Having just heard the first movement of this powerful work by the Japanese Violinist, Ms. Sayaka, with a very brilliant piano partner, I can only mention the intonation of the violinist was so sharp throughout it detracted from the basic feeling she has for this work, and obvious love she feels for Schumann. The great challenge in playing a work which oozes such impassioned response is in not falling into the ‘sand traps’ of distorted intonation because of its expansive emotional demands … In coaching a very gifted pupil in my London series of Violin and Chamber Music Master Classes, in the name of Dimitri, I spent much of the time helping him with his bowing which had certain reservations in coming all the way to the frog, limiting his inner expression being fully aurally available to all listening with the vibrancy of the first movement. When we managed to ‘liberate’ him, vis a vie his bow fear of the frog, Dimitri’s interpretation was much more free and true to Schumann’s messages. One’s mood and feeling at given points in our life/live’s dictates, perhaps subconsciously, our choice of repertoire. Indeed, I would go so far as to say my own ‘mood’ is drawing closely again to this great score of Robert Schumann. I shall “sniff” around to hear a few other performances. One thing: I feel it imperative for any pianist collaborating with the violin in this particular work, to hold down the LOUD. It takes away from being truly able to hear all in the violin with piano score, which is prone to throwing off a less experienced violinist than Ms. Sayaka. Being quite sure this is an ongoing challenge for pianist’s since time in memoriam, it is truly critical for balance in sound and give and take to be a primary consideration in especially this deeply arduous work, which needs another ‘resurrection’ from all of us who perform and record, and listen intently! Thank you, Tim, for this gift, and for your insights into the World of Robert Schumann. I was delighted to learn Clara Schumann and none other than Ferdinand David gave the premiere of this great Sonata for Violin and Piano. My deep regret is in not being able to hear and feel how they presented it at that time ~
Warm musical compliments to Ms. Sayaka, with an “RX” to close in on her intonation toward the low side, I remain
Musically yours ~