Lost Chords: Robert Schumann
The final creative period of Robert Schumann’s life came towards the end of 1853. The sequence and exact dates of the works he composed during this time are detailed in the diaries and household books he and his wife Clara kept. The Violin Concerto, for instance, was written in less than two weeks starting on September 21st. Next, he went on to write Marchenerzahlungen for clarinet, viola and piano, Gesange der Fruhle, for piano, and the third violin sonata, all by the end of October. And between November 2nd and the 4th came the Five Romances for Cello and Piano, Schumann’s last complete work before his mental health began to deteriorate. After that there’s only the fragmentary Variations on a Theme in E-flat Major (known as the Ghost Variations and sometimes also referred to as the Letzter Gedanke, or “Last Thought”) before he threw himself off the Old Rhine Bridge in Dusseldorf on February 27th 1854. He survived this suicide attempt, but spent the last two years of his life as a patient at the Endenich asylum near Bonn.

Clara survived her husband by 40 years and became very protective about his reputation. She was particularly worried that his illness might have affected the quality of his last compositions so she withheld many of them, despite encouragement from her friends Brahms and Joachim to have them published. (There’s a later parallel here with Ivor Gurney). Three pieces that survived despite Clara’s wishes were the Violin Concerto (which wasn’t published until 1937), the third violin sonata and the Ghost Variations. The Five Romances weren’t so lucky – Clara is said to have burnt them towards the end of her life. Cellists today listen to the beautiful second movement of the Violin Concerto (which survived because the violinist Joseph Joachim kept a copy of the manuscript and only finally came to light in the 1930s), and mourn the loss.

What remains? There’s really only a tantalizing trail of correspondence, from the time of composition, through Schumann’s incarceration at Endenich, and after his death between Clara, Brahms and Joachim. The fate of the original manuscript is unknown, and no copies have been found. Some related works perhaps provide some indication of how they may have sounded. The elegiac Three Romances for Oboe and Piano, Op 94, written four years earlier, have sometimes been performed on the cello, transposed an octave down. Then there’s the Cello Concerto in A minor, op 129 of 1850, Schumann’s only full scale work for the cello, now generally considered a masterpiece. Clara, a respected composer in her own right, wrote the Three Romances for Violin op.22 in July 1853, four months before the lost Five Romances. In 1861 Brahms used the Letzter Gedanke theme for his Variations for Piano Duet, op 23 as a melancholy homage.

More recently, cellist Steven Isserlis began championing Schumann’s late works in performances and recordings, and in 1997 he produced a documentary, Schumann’s Lost Romances. And the Swiss composer Heinz Holliger (born 1939) wrote Romancendres for cello and piano in 2003 – a “re-imagining” of the Five Romances in his own terms. Holliger had previously written Gesang der Fruhe (1987), a choral work that incorporates material from Clara’s letters and Robert’s autopsy report. The Holliger pieces (and the Isserlis documentary) explore the relationship between mental instability and musical creativity.