Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto in d minor does not have an Opus number. It has instead "WoO 23." That simply means "Without Opus." The reason it didn’t get assigned one was that, frankly, the people who knew him best and saw his behavior at the time he was composing it were afraid the public might somehow discover a side that they did not want. They thought that his deteriorating mental health was evident in the sound of the piece. So it was kept hidden for more than 80 years.
Schumann started on it on September 11, 1853 and was finished with it in 22 days. The whole thing was on paper in just three weeks. But I should add an asterisk there because of what happened before he was totally finished. A young man named Johannes Brahms showed up on October 1st. Schumann had barely started the 3rd movement. There was something about that first meeting (that has been mentioned many times as one of the most important in Classical Music history). After that first night, although Robert Schumann composed this violin concerto for his old friend, Joseph Joachim, there was something about his new friend that motivated him to compose virtually the entire third movement in just three days!
The concert in which it was to premiere was later that month. Joachim did play the Schumann Fantasie in C major, Op. 131, but he did not play the concerto, and never would. But he held onto the manuscript the rest of his life. Schumann tried to kill himself 5 months later and ended up in a sanitarium. What happened only added to Joachim’s suspicions that a very different man had composed the piece than the one he knew. So, he began a quiet campaign to make sure the concerto would rmain unperformed. He went to Schumann’s widow Clara, and even to his new friend Brahms to get them to agree that the piece should stay out of the public’s hands, hopefully forever. Interesting though, if Joachim felt so strongly that way, why didn’t he destroy it? In his will, he stipulated that it would not be destroyed and should end up in the Prussian State Library in Berlin. It would not be performed for anther hundred years after the composer’s death — which would have made it 1956.
But, in March 1933, during a spiritualist séance in London with two of Joachim’s grandnieces, at least one claimed to have heard the spirit-voice of Robert Schumann requesting that they pull out the manuscript and perform it. It took a while to find it, and then four years later, it just so happened that Yehudi Menuhin was given the music as he was asked for his opinion of it. Menuhin dropped everything he was doing and began to get ready for the premiere.
However, one of the grand nieces of Joachim, who had a reputation as a decent violinist, claimed that the ‘spiritualist’ had told her she should be the one to premiere it. And then the German government (the Nazis) got involved and said that it had to be premiered by a German. So, on November 26, 1937, with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and a relatively unknown (German) violinist, it was premiered. But about a week later, it was Menuhin who gave the second performance (with piano accompaniment), at Carnegie Hall. The niece gave it the third performance.
I’m leading somewhere with all of this. Okay, Robert Schuman was definitely not doing well mentally by the time he composed his violin concerto. He had always been haunted by the fact that his mother had lost her sanity and committed suicide. And now that he had had to fight the onset of syphilis, he knew that often the greatest devastation from it was insanity. So, as so many people did in those days, for it he took mercury. It causes insanity.
We must remember that in those days, people wanted to hide anyone with mental illness…almost to the point of making it look as though mental illness did not exist. So was Joseph Joachim correct in convincing Clara Schumann that her husband’s illness showed up too clearly in this piece?
There is no doubt that the beginning opens with an intensity rarely heard, and if we were aware of what was going on in his mind, then we could understand a bit more what he was trying to say. But why should we dismiss a potential masterpiece just because we’re too afraid of ‘going inside’ the piece, to let it take ua away? We won’t become insane by listening to it. Actually, because of the intensity in which Schumann composed it, we might be allowed to experience more of the art of it (the music as pure art). Schumann, more than just about anyone in his trade, looked at music as art. Long before he was a composer, he was serious observer of music (including being a well-respected critic and publisher of a highly touted music magazine). Should we not look at a later Van Gogh because we might see insanity?
Was Joachim right? Or should the man, Schumann, be known for everything he was?