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A ghost story behind Schumann’s violin concerto

Posted October. 06, 2020 08:00,   

Updated October. 06, 2020 08:00


Schumann’s Ghost Variations will be the last piece of music of the “Paik Kun-woo and Schumann” concert, which will be held at the Lotte Concert Hall in Seoul on Friday. The theme of this piece is similar to the melody of the second movement of Schumann’s Violin Concerto. Why is that? Why such a title was chosen? There is a spooky story behind it.

Schumann wrote a violin concerto for his violinist friend Joachim in 1853, when he was 43. Since early age, Schumann suffered from mental health problem such as hallucinations, and his mental health started to worsen around that year. A year later in 1854, he said, “A theme had been sung to me by angels” and believed that a theme was dictated by the ghost of Schubert, who had passed away long ago, and his deceased friend Mendelssohn.

Schumann wrote down a theme, which he believed was sung to him by angels, Schubert, and Mendelssohn, and turned it into variations. They are called today, “Ghost Variations.”

The theme Schumann believed was sung to him by ghosts, however, was actually the theme he had already used for his violin concert the previous year. His mental condition was so ill that he could not even remember it.

On a cold winter day on Feb. 27, 1854, Schumann left home and jumped into the nearby river Rhine in a suicide attempt. Luckily, a group of fishermen passing by pulled him out of water. He was admitted to an asylum in Bonn.

Then what happened to the violin concerto Schumann had composed? Joachim decided that the piece was not normal since it had been composed after Schumann’s mental condition had turned unstable. Joachim persuaded Clara, Schumann’s wife, to not publish the piece and she accepted his advice.

Almost 80 years later in 1933, violinist Jelly d'Arányi and her sister attended a séance in London. It was a mystical meeting, where attendees attempt to communicate with spirits using a Ouija board, which is a flat board marked with the letters of the alphabet.

There, the sisters received an odd message from a spirit. It told them to find an unpublished violin concert. When people asked who the spirit was, it identified itself as Robert Schumann. The attendees were shocked in horror.

In another séance held a few days later, a spirit claiming himself as Joachim told the sisters that the violin concerto was kept at a library in Berlin. The sisters were actually Joachim’s grandnieces. The person who hosted the séance found Schumann’s violin concert at a library in Berlin, and the work of Schumann was finally published 80 years after it had been composed.

Was it really spirits that told people about the existence of Schumann’s violin concerto? German pianist and conductor Christoph Eschenbach said it might be a “planned discovery.” The d'Arányi sisters probably knew that the piece was kept in the Berlin library and attempted to draw people’s attention by making up a story. It is the mind of those who listen that determines whether something is true or not.