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About this Piece

The creations of Schumann’s final years—say, from 1850, after the “Rhenish” Symphony, through 1854, when he stopped composing—are generally regarded as the products of a disordered mind and therefore inferior, for the most part even worthless. Harsh judgments, to be sure.

The catalog for those years includes large choral works, songs and solo piano pieces, the Cello Concerto, the Violin Concerto, and in the realm of chamber music, the Piano Trio in G minor, the Märchenbilder for viola and piano, and his three Sonatas for Violin and Piano.

The first two Sonatas for Violin and Piano were written in 1851–52. Both were dedicated to Ferdinand David, the concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Mendelssohn.   

When Schumann had to be expansive, that is, working in the larger forms uncongenial to him in earlier times, he could create gold—but it was often embedded in lead: what some listeners may find “wrong” with the D-minor Sonata is that for most of its duration the violin remains in its middle register, cheating us—if that’s the word—of the soaring quality we associate with the instrument. Then, too, that vast opening movement may offer more than the allowable frequency of doublings of the violin and the piano’s bass, further evidence of the darkish nature of the music—minor keys color all four movements—and hardly in accord with the sort of give-and-take balance of piano and violin that Beethoven established virtually from the outset in his duo sonatas and that would be recalled by Brahms.

But there is just as much to engage the ear, if we—and the executants—aren’t preoccupied with the composer’s struggle to make his materials cohere. There are songs everywhere here, not the sweet tunes of the 1840s, but anxiety-ridden, often incomplete ones, beginning with the yearning second theme of the opening movement’s principal section.

The thematic joining of the two middle movements is a particularly happy inspiration, with the scherzo (marked Sehr lebhaft—very lively), in B minor, introducing before its conclusion the exquisitely simple G-major theme of the ensuing movement (Leise, einfach—softly, simply), where it is announced in gentle, haunting violin pizzicatos.

The finale is a stormy affair, with great piano clusters trying to obscure the violin’s D-minor theme. But the final transformation of that theme into a heroic D major finds the two instruments achieving the balance that has thus far eluded them in this gloriously imperfect work. —Excerpt from a note by Herbert Glass