by James Nicholas

James Nicholas received his doctorate and two master's degrees from Indiana University, where his cello instructors included Eva Czako-Janzer, Fritz Magg, Janos Starker, and Helga Winold. He is particularly interested in the performance practice of the Baroque, Classical, and early Romantic eras, and has collaborated and/or performed with such early music luminaries as Anner Bylsma, Max van Egmond, Christopher Hogwood, John Holloway, Steven Isserlis, Martin Pearlman, Stanley Ritchie, and Elisabeth Wright. He is also active as a composer and editor, having published several original works as well as performing editions of Bach's solo string music, reconstructions of two unfinished Mozart horn concerti, and most recently the first English-language setting of the traditional music of the Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Apostolic Church. He has published an idiomatic version of the Bach Sixth Suite arranged in G Major for a normal 4-string cello, a critical edition of the scores of six Boccherini cello concerti, and recently published a new edition for solo cello of the Biber Passagalia of 1674 . He lives and works in the Hartford area, where for years he and his German shepherd sidekick, Sparks, were well-known as the Sunday afternoon announcing team on Connecticut Public Radio.

First things first: I must apologize for the title, which is a thinly-disguised paraphrase of a Kellogg's Corn Flakes commercial from the early nineties.

We grew up in the age of recording. I'd venture to say that most of us learned our basic cello repertoire from recordings; perhaps as children, teenagers, or young adults, we had one, maybe two LP's or CD's of each of our favorite works. The positive result of this was that we learned, early on, to appreciate a body of music which teeters precariously on the verge of extinction, and we developed a desire to preserve it and cultivate it. The negative result is that the distinction between between "musical work" and "performance of that musical work" tended to become confused and blurred. Repeated hearings of a single performance (usually edited, spliced, digitally remastered, or otherwise ossified and petrified) became embedded in our aural memories and defined that piece of music for each of us. Since our cellist heroes were virtuosi, we may have assumed that among their virtues was some some sort of authoritative insight into the music they performed. And so, each of our idols played the "definitive" version; no two versions ever the same, of course.

Because of the conditioning resulting from the strong influence of aural memory, many of us find it difficult to override impressions formed years ago, and we are surprised when we begin to carefully examine printed musical texts. Often, the conflict between printed directives and our aural memory makes us oblivious to such basic instructions as tempo markings and dynamic indications. Sometimes, we actively choose to ignore or discard them because they clash with our preconceptions born of "received tradition".

The Schumann concerto has been treated especially casually in this regard; so much so, in fact, that I suspect that our most basic notion of its character and content may be seriously distorted. There are two fundamental reasons for this. First, the unusual technical difficulty of the piece has, in the minds of some, justified all sorts of changes in the text, principally involving basic tempi and also articulations. Secondly, false assumptions regarding Schumann's mental state at the time of the concerto's composition, and all-too-often repeated myths about his insanity in general, have led to general acceptance of the alleged necessity and inevitability of making such changes. I'll address the second issue first, so that it can be quickly dismissed.

All biographers agree that Schumann was both lucid and content (or at least appeared to be) when he sketched and orchestrated the concerto in two weeks (October 10-24, 1850), shortly after moving to Duesseldorf. Nine days later (November 2), he began work on the Third Symphony ("Rhenish"), which he completed in five weeks. I've never heard anyone suggest that there are any signs of mental illness in that piece! It is true that in early February 1854, after Schumann had begun to experience the hallucinations which ultimately led to his suicide attempt and voluntary institutionalization, he took out the cello concerto to proofread, and made corrections to prepare the work for publication. This mechanical work actually seems to have calmed him down and kept him lucid during the day; he was probably very much what we would call "sleep-deprived" today. Significantly, even though Brahms, Clara Schumann, and Joseph Joachim decided to suppress the Violin Concerto (September-October 1853) from publication, detecting (with the usual hindsight) supposed signs of mental fatigue and uneven quality, the cello concerto escaped any such judgement. Clara always maintained that it was an exceptionally fine work, and "must give the greatest pleasure to those who hear it".

Let's return to a reexamination of the work itself. The original title, which was never altered on the first page of the autograph, reads "Concertstueck fuer Violoncell mit Begleitung des Orchesters" (Concertpiece for Violoncello with orchestral accompaniment). The choice of the word "Concertpiece" already hints that Schumann was consciously planning to depart from traditional norms. In fact, the work is bold, daring, and extremely advanced from the standpoints of structure, harmonic vocabulary, and thematic unity; even more seamless and motivically more tightly integrated than the revised Fourth Symphony.

Tempo and Structural Considerations

A strong case can be made that Schumann modeled the opening of the cello concerto after that of the Mendelssohn violin concerto (1846). In both, the soloist enters immediately after the establishment of an undulating accompaniment. Both opening themes begin a fifth above the uppermost string and outline an ascending 6/4 minor arpeggio. The first eight bars of both are built upon almost identical harmonic progressions, and in both, there is an orchestral tutti only after the soloist has presented the opening theme group in its entirety. Keeping the opening of the Mendelssohn concerto in mind, let's consider the tempo of Schumann's first movement. Clara Schumann maintained that the success of her husband's music is dependent upon the careful observance of all of his markings. The tempo indication here is "Nicht zu schnell" (not too fast), 130 to the quarter note. It's important to establish at the outset that the rumors about the inaccuracy of Schumann's metronome have been largely refuted; Schumann regulated his metronome frequently against a clock which he knew to be accurate, and even suggests to a fellow composer (Ferdinand Boehme) that he do the same, in a letter dated Feb. 8, 1853.[1] 130 is far quicker than the range of tempi usually heard today, and yet it is not at all incompatible with the indication "not too fast" when compared to the "Allegro molto appassionato" of the Mendelssohn concerto or to Beethoven's typical allegro tempi of anywhere from 144 to 168. Schumann's "nicht zu schnell" at 130 corresponds closely to Beethoven's markings of "Allegro ma non troppo" and 132 for the opening of the Sixth ("Pastoral") Symphony. Noting that the opening of the cello concerto moves in relatively long note values, Schumann may well have wished to prevent sluggishness and to insure that the feeling of a "Classical first movement" would be preserved. It is also possible that he provided it with a numeric marking which was slightly faster than his actual intent, knowing that the tendency of string players is to slow things down (much as I habitually set my clock 5 minutes fast so that I will arrive at work at least barely on time!) Try imagining this movement in an alla breve (2/2) meter, the half-note equalling something like 60 to 65.

For comparison purposes, the first movement of the Piano Concerto (1841-1845) is marked "Allegro affettuoso", half-note = 84 (quarter note = 168), whereas the intensely grave first movement of the Violin Concerto bears the indication "In kraeftigem, nicht zu schnellem Tempo" (in a powerful, not too fast tempo), half-note = 54 (quarter-note = 108). Schumann's marking of 130 for the first movement of the cello concerto, therefore, is actually middle-of-the-road. Even if one drops the tempo down to, let us say, 116 (the tempo which Dvorak specifies for the opening of his cello concerto), the opening solo does not bog down, and the tutti at bar 34 strides forward quite naturally without the need for a jarring change in tempo. 120 works admirably.

Karl Boehm was fond of saying that there is at least one passage in every piece which defines the possible range of tempi for that piece. I would suggest that the exultant tutti at bar 34 serves as an indicator passage for the basic tempo of the rest of the movement. At this point I need to address the inevitable critics and state the obvious, lest my position be caricatured: I do not advocate rigid adherence to the metronome, and neither does any other reasonable and practical musician. Collectively, however, we musicians have a bad (even arrogant) habit of deriding and dismissing quantitative indications of tempo before we have carefully considered the possibility of their validity. We generally apply ourselves well to learning pitches and rhythms, but all too frequently, careful rendering of the other parameters of music (e.g. tempo, dynamic/expression marks, and especially articulations) becomes and remains a low priority.

Almost every set of album notes on the cello concerto will mention its poetic and inward nature. I'm not convinced, however, that this equates to introversion and sleepiness. Every bit of internal evidence in the first thirty bars suggests passion and urgency, not repose: the numeric tempo indication, the accent mark in the second bar of the cello solo, the swoops and "riffs", the appoggiaturas and anticipations, the gypsy-like rubato variant of the opening theme in bar 21, the syncopations in the accompaniment, and the bass notes on the offbeats.

Six measures before the second movement (at bar 280), there is a transition passage marked "Etwas zurueckhaltend" (somewhat holding back), containing a reference to the opening chords of the first movement. The association will be made clearer if the "etwas zurueckhaltend" relates to the context of the first movement tempo, and is not suddenly and substantially slower. These chords also reappear within the second movement, at bars 294 and 297, and if the tempo is chosen carefully (see below), the reference will be unmistakable, as it will occur almost exactly in the tempo of the concerto's opening bars.

"Langsam" means slow, but once again, this is a subjective term. Schumann quantifies it with a marking of 63 to the quarter note. Compared to the 130 of the first movement, this is definitely slow, and yet it allows both the soloist's eighth-notes and the accompanying triplets to flow naturally, without contrived-sounding rhythmic conflicts. At bar 303, where the only motion is provided by the undulating eighth-notes in the viola accompaniment, the wisdom of Schumann's tempo marking becomes apparent. (Note that 63 is very close to Beethoven's marking of 60 to the quarter note in the third movement [Adagio molto e cantabile] of the Ninth Symphony).

Four bars before the beginning of the finale, Schumann writes "schneller und schneller" (faster and faster), which makes me wonder how any performer could feel that a ritardando is in order; some of them obviously do. Interestingly, no one seems to have a gripe with the metronome marking of 114 to the quarter-note at "Sehr lebhaft" (very lively).

I also wonder about the origin of the practice of inserting a cadenza immediately before the coda of the last movement. There is not even a double bar or a fermata suggesting that something is to be added, let alone subtracted (as in the Leonard Rose edition). Schumann has already provided his own accompanied cadenza, in which the tension mounts above a brooding D-sharp/E pedal. [2] At "Im Tempo" (quarter note = 114), bar 690, Schumann begins introducing the inversion of the finale's first theme, played pizzicato by the strings. At bar 707, the dotted-quarter/eighth-note motif from the secondary theme group of the first movement is woven in. At "Schneller" (faster), bar 722, he reveals that the "Clara" motif of the finale's second theme (and of bar 288 in the second movement) is derived from the inversion of the finale's first motif, and vice versa. If, at "Schneller", the tempo is made to equal or approximate the first movement tempo, the appearance of the triplet motif at bar 734, which was so prominent in the first movement, will seem like the return of an old friend. With this, the concerto closes in exuberance; the stark finale theme now transformed into a buoyant A-major at bar 746.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this concerto is its seamlessness, and we can only marvel at the ingenuity of the composer who so perfectly integrated its diverse elements into such a satisfying, balanced piece of architecture. When this is made comprehensible to the listener, the sublime musical content of the work seems even more miraculous.

As an aside, all controversies regarding Schumann's metronome markings become irrelevant when one considers the following inexplicable performance tradition in the first movement of the beloved Piano Concerto. The movement begins in a fiery alla breve, half-note = 84. Three bars into the movement, the universal practice is to slow down to almost half that speed for the presentation of the principal theme in the woodwinds (eight bars) and then in the solo piano (a further eight bars); the tempo then gets moving again. The same invariably happens in the recapitulation, in that case necessitating an awkward ritardando, which is also not marked. Even the two available period-instrument recordings follow this practice. It's especially puzzling that the first theme is played twice as slowly as the second theme, because the second theme essentially is the first theme! My conclusion is that, overall, it's not Schumann's music which is incoherent, chaotic, loosely structured, or insane; it's performers who make it sound that way.

Orchestral Considerations

Although Schumann's name seems hardly ever to be mentioned by conductors and composers without the added commentary that he was an indifferent, if not incompetent orchestrator, the internal evidence hardly supports this. Schumann learned orchestration by studying Haydn and Mozart, and especially Beethoven, Schubert, and Mendelssohn. Not such bad teachers! The cello concerto, in spite of its swift composition (the orchestration was done between October 18 and 24 of 1850), contains numerous fanciful and highly original touches of orchestral color. Consider the very opening: the chilling woodwind chords and the rich three- and four-part pizzicato chords in the strings suggest the strumming of a colossal harp at the beginning of a bard's epic ballad (or at least they do if conductors don't instruct the violins to play the chords divisi). Schumann uses to full advantage the possibilities of the newly invented valve horn by assigning it the soaring principal theme in the key of A-flat minor (bars 143 and 147). The scoring for violas and a second solo cello in the second movement is wonderfully lush, and the arresting, eerie entrances of the winds in the coda of the finale (bars 699 ff) would have done Mendelssohn proud. Very interesting and noteworthy are the two specific indications for stopped horn during the recitative following the second movement (bars 336-338); a menacing sound we would associate much more readily with Mahler! Here, the valve horn is called upon to produce a sound which originated in the supposed limitations of its predecessor, the natural horn. It's unfortunate that conductors frequently understate or ignore this startling effect.

Besides the allegation that Schumann was indifferent to instrumental color, a common criticism of his style of orchestration is that he frequently produced textures which have been called "dense" or "string-heavy". These, however, were conceived for what would be called a chamber orchestra today. One of the most eminent concert (i.e. non-theater) orchestras in Europe during Schumann's lifetime was the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, which premiered many of Schumann's most important symphonic works during the 1840's, under Mendelssohn's baton. [3] In 1839, the Gewandhaus boasted 9 first violins, 8 seconds, 5 violas, 5 cellos, and 4 double basses. Most German concert orchestras throughout the nineteenth century, including those that premiered Brahms' symphonies, were similarly small. The following characteristics of the modern orchestra should be considered, then, before a judgement is made as to whether it is Schumann or his modern critics who fail to understand the forces for which he was writing:

A Word on Performance Practice

Strings: The use of gut strings, which was universal until World War II, produces quite a different tone than that to which we are accustomed today: less loud, less penetrating, perhaps a bit more nasal. Gut strings demonstrate very quickly and convincingly that the sheer volume of sound which is demanded of us today in the performance of Romantic music was simply not attainable during that period itself. To force sound beyond the natural capabilities of the strings and of the instrument would produce not only an intolerable amount of scratching, but actual sudden breaking of the sound: a hoarse croak devoid of pitch. From the written and recorded evidence left behind by the most admired nineteenth-century string instrumentalists, we can conclude that beauty and expressivity of sound were prized more than mere power.

Vibrato: From Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), a member of the Schumann-Brahms circle, the dedicatee of Schumann's, Brahms', and Dvorak's violin concerti, and perhaps the most generally admired violinist of the nineteenth century, we can gain at least a partial idea of what Schumann might have considered ideal string playing. Both Joachim's Violinschule (1905) and his few recordings attest to the fact that he considered the vibrato to be an ornamental device, to be used both consciously and sparingly for expressive purposes. He emphatically did not consider it an element of basic sound production, and warning against its overuse, he says the following: "An excess of this means of expression, especially when used in the wrong place, produces in the hearer a feeling of extreme discomfort, which, as Schumann says, may increase 'usque ad nauseam'" [Emphasis mine]. This attitude was shared by his student, the celebrated Leopold Auer (1845-1930), who in Violin Playing As I Teach It discusses the vibrato in the same terms. He characterizes its continuous use as an "ailing nervous condition, vicious habit, or lack of good taste". A brief reference in Reinhold Jockisch's Katechismus der Violine und des Violinspiels (1900) mentions that the vibrato is "usually appropriate on longer notes in pieces of an especially passionate character, for example, some of Schumann's", but warns that hardly anything is as repulsive (widerlich) as a vibrato which is exaggerated or too frequently used. Brahms (1833-1896) also seems to have considered it a special effect; his entry in Cobbett's Encyclopedia of Chamber Music describes one of the first readings of the Clarinet Quintet. Brahms evidently suggested, during this rehearsal, that all four string players use vibrato in the middle section of the second movement to create a special, mysterious effect (this is the passage in which the clarinetist launches into a smoldering, gypsy-like rhapsody against sustained chords in the strings) Joachim also mentions, in the Violinschule, that it is "strangely romantic and mysterious in effect when employed harmonically".

Portamento: From early recordings, we can infer that this device, which we also call glissando, was much more frequently used even by the "purists" (exemplified by Joachim) than their method books would seem to imply. How tastes do change! However, it should be noted that the slide is not often used in the predictable manner of today. As astonishing as the "yowls" between intervals of a major second or third are the frequently clean shifts of an octave or more. Apparently, the use of the glissando in times past constituted a language which we perhaps no longer really comprehend. So: slide away, but do surprise your listeners!

Intonation: It is worth considering that when Joachim was learning his art (in the 1830's and 1840's), keyboard temperament had not universally settled into the equal-temperament system which is standard today. From Joachim's recordings, we can clearly hear that he had not abandoned the older, "Classical" system of acoustic major thirds and just intonation in favor of equal temperament (or "compromised tuning", as George Bernard Shaw referred to it). To Joachim, and to all his predecessors, a true C-sharp would have been lower than D-flat; a major third on the piano would be too wide. This is directly contrary to modern practice.

One thing that indeed is dense about Schumann's later music is his rich and highly sophisticated harmonic vocabulary, learned from the later Beethoven (cf. the second movement of the Piano Sonata in A, op. 101), Schubert, and especially Mendelssohn. In the cello concerto, he advances even further afield than usual, creating some extraordinary complex dissonances through the use of multiple appoggiaturas, unorthodox pedal tones, unconventional positions and resolutions of augmented sixth chords, etc (bars 280-282 are a perfect example). Would Schumann (born 1810) have wished for leading tones to be played as high as possible, Neapolitan flat supertonics to be played as low as they generally are today? In some instances, this post-Casals practice renders his harmonies almost incomprehensible. In general, I suggest lowering the sharps, raising the flats (and F naturals), and taming the vibrato.

Orchestral setting

As in other nineteenth-century concerti, the score of the Schumann contains "Solo" and Tutti" indications throughout. I strongly suspect that these are not mere indications that the soloist has entered, but that they might actually be directives to reduce the number of accompanying strings to solo; that is one to a part (or one stand to a part). The practice dates back to the Classical era. Mozart is known to have done this in performances of piano concerti [4], and there is a Boccherini cello concerto (D major, G. 483) of which the first edition actually contained separate parts for the principal string players containing all of the accompaniment parts, whereas the ripieni string parts have only rests during the cello soli). There is no evidence that this practice suddenly disappeared with the advent of the nineteenth century, and in the case of a cello concerto, it would be particularly sensible to accompany the soloist with only a string quartet or octet. Interestingly, Schumann himself toyed with the idea of making an arrangement of the cello concerto for solo cello and string quartet. Unfortunately, this plan never came to fruition; we cellists could have had a "portable" version!

The Bottom Lines:

In conclusion: I plead with the reader to learn and relearn music from the best editions (in score) available. Consider the composer's printed directions to be just as important as the pitches and rhythms (a few missed notes are only a momentary distraction and will not ruin a performance, but inappropriate tempi and inappropriate style can make a performance sheer tedium). Try to understand the reasoning behind seemingly quirky indications before dismissing them. Attempt to form conclusions about the content and character of a piece as if neither you nor anyone else had ever heard it before (this can be a challenge, but it absolutely can be done). Use your imagination and try to envision the circumstances under which a piece would have been performed when it was new. Question all hand-me-down performance traditions; accept them if they make sense, but feel no obligation to adopt them if they don't. By all means listen to recordings for enjoyment's sake, but beware of the trap of learning interpretations from them. In other words: don't believe what other people tell you -- until you check it out for yourself!




  1. See Brian Schlotel: Schumann and the Metronome, in Robert Schumann: the Man and his Music, ed. Alan Walker (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1972).
  2. Was this inspired by the similar pedal in the coda of the first movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, which caused an angry Weber to conjecture that Beethoven was intoxicated when he wrote it?
  3. The First and Second Symphonies, the Overture, Scherzo, and Finale, the Phantasie for piano and orchestra (which eventually became the first movement of the Piano Concerto), the first version of the Symphony in D minor, which would eventually become known as the Fourth, and the oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri. See Adam Carse: The Orchestra from Beethoven to Berlioz. (New York: Broude Bros.), 1949.
  4. See Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Neue Ausgabe saemtlicher Werke, herausgegeben von er Internationalen Stiftung Mozarteum Salzburg; Serie V: Konzert, Werkgruppe 14; Konzerte fuer ein oder mehrere Streichinstrumente, Band 10: Concertone, Sinfonia Concertante, vorgelegt von Christoph-Hellmut Mahling. (Kassel: Baerenreiter), 1975: x.

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