Schumann’s Ghost

Over at, editor Laurie Niles has recently interviewed acclaimed violinist Elmar Oliveira who, in 1978, won the gold medal at the ultra-prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition. (Check out the interview here: In the years since, Oliveira has continued to thrive, through performing, teaching and recording. His most recent project is a recording of Robert Schumann’s violin concerto with Florida’s Atlantic Classical Orchestra. As soon as I read about Oliveira’s interest in Schumann’s largely ignored violin concerto, something deep in me gave a leap of recognition.

The subject of Schumann, in particular his violin concerto, has always fascinated me. Haunted me. It’s an enigma in the violin concerto world. It’s not a flawless work of music. It’s more orchestral than violin-oriented. It’s difficult for the player, and yet, paradoxically, not virtuosic in the least. Instead it is subtle, imbued with something mystical and nameless.

I love putting classical music into my fiction. It helps me analyze it from a different context; it helps me describe my characters (there are Mahler-loving characters and there are Mozart or Schoenberg-loving characters; need I say more about their differences?). It’s a way of feeding my readers information about classical music and the protagonist both.

I wrote the following excerpt a few years back but it still jolts me like it was my reality, my painful experience (okay, maybe it kinda sorta was). Schumann’s story, however, and the story behind his violin concerto, is uniquely his own.

Kylie, narrating, is a precocious thirteen-year-old with mystical tendencies, on the cusp of tremendous change, buffeted about by the spiritual and sensual stimulus that have pervaded her life since watching her grandmother die. Ilse, her mother’s friend, who shares the same mystical sensibilities and interest in classical music, has just lent Kylie a Robert Schumann CD, whose life story and music fascinate Kylie.


 “An interesting story behind this concerto,” Ilse had written on a note tucked inside the plastic CD case. “Google it, and don’t miss the bit about violinist Jelly D’Arányi and Schumann’s ghost.”

Kylie wondered if Ilse had misspelled the name; what kind of name was Jelly? But she Googled it, happily abandoning the poem she was struggling with for literature class, and there it was, a part of the Schumann story that hadn’t appeared in the biography she’d read. Jelly D’Arányi was a Hungarian virtuoso violinist, the grand-niece of the famous Joseph Joachim, to whom Schumann had dedicated much of his violin compositions. Schumann had consulted him on the violin concerto once he’d completed it in October of 1853, but just a few short months later came the madness. The concerto was never performed. Joachim kept the manuscript for the rest of his life as a memento. Along with Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, they agreed to keep the violin concerto a secret, deciding that not only was it not Schumann’s best work, but that it carried the taint of madness that had done him in.

Joachim eventually brought the manuscript to the Prussian State Library in Berlin with the stipulation that it stay there, unplayed, unpublished, until 100 years after Schumann’s death. However in March 1933, Joachim’s grand-niece, Jelly d’Arányi, had a visitation during a spiritualist séance in London. A spirit-voice identifying himself as Robert Schumann told her to recover an unpublished work of his and perform it. She knew nothing about the concerto—almost nobody did, nor where to find it, until a second message, from her great-uncle, Joachim, directed her to its location.

There she went. There, at the Prussian State Library, she found it.

The skin at the nape of Kylie’s neck began to prickle in that spooky, delicious way. Had Ilse known just how perfect this story, this piece of music would be for Kylie?

Of course she had.

She skittered out of the study and up to her room, hastily sliding the CD into the player. Stretched out on her bed, she listened intently. When the concerto ended, she cued it back to the start again and listened to it all a second time. A third time. A thrill spread through her. This was her poem for literature class. This story, this piece of music. The assignment, due next week, had been to bring a piece of music and recite a poem or essay on how it made you feel. Forget the contrived, junky prose poem she’d been trying to write, to the music of Beyoncé. Music that now seemed as contrived and flashy-phony as her poem.

She wrote fast. It poured out of her. Schumann, she knew, had written this concerto equally fast, starting in early September and completing it on October third, just two days after meeting Johannes Brahms, who became an instant, lifelong best friend to both Robert and Clara Schumann.

She played the second movement over and over, utterly sucked into the melody’s spell. There was a sense of warmth and underlying security, even though the music was in a minor key. A dazzling sense of sweetness pervaded it that, at the same time, hurt unbearably, making her heart ache. Look what had happened to Schumann, after all, just a few months later. And maybe Joachim had been right—maybe you could hear that in the music. Not morbidity or madness, but an occasional glimpse of the beyond, a land populated by spirits and unearthly fog and beauty so sublime it made you weep. Schumann had seen this and put it to music.

These were the thoughts she tried to share with her classmates the following Tuesday, as the music from the second movement played in the background. The classroom was overheated, redolent of Doritos and boredom. She’d been the second to the last person scheduled to recite, wafting up to the podium, half in a dream, half in a state of terror.

She’d incorporated the seasons as an analogy to help her classmates better understand. She talked about how the music conjured up an autumn mood, sweet and yet wistful, mindful of the shortening days. Indian summer, harvest time. A golden sunset. The way it felt to rest after a hard day’s work. The minor undertones of the approaching winter, the hardships it would bring. And if you were still, very still, and looked close, you could see, beyond that cold, dark winter, the hint of eternal spring.

Her mind loosened and the rest slipped out, words and ideas pouring from her mouth before her brain had the chance to censor them. How Schumann lived on the cusp between lucidity and insanity by the end. Between knowing and not knowing. So many of his beloved friends and family members had died, it was as if he’d begun living with one foot on the other side. And this hint, this whiff, of the divine he found there—that was why he kept reaching.

She fell silent as an awareness crystallized inside her, casting rays of illumination into every dark corner of her psyche. She understood now why people devoted their lives to the pursuit of the sacred, the ineffable, why they sacrificed normal lives for it. Because to arrive at that place, where mortal meets divine—it was the pinnacle. A sweetness, a golden light, a place of such perfection that you’d just dissolve upon witnessing it.

That was where this sound came from. It was so visceral, it was as if she could actually taste it, run her fingers over the silky textures. This music. Schumann had done it. He’d captured both realms.

She heard the restless stirring of the other students and realized that she hadn’t spoken for some time. Her eyes flew open to find looks of blank incomprehension covering her classmates’ faces. Then one student began to snicker and another and another until it seemed everyone was laughing at her. Ms. Wong, the literature teacher, had to come stand beside Kylie and wave her hands to quiet the students.

Finally she turned to Kylie and beamed. “Well! You put some real thought into that, didn’t you, Kylie?” Her voice was bright and fake-sounding, but when she started clapping the others gradually joined in.

“Comments, anyone?” she said once the clapping had subsided.

Silence. Finally someone raised his hand. “Yes, Conner?” Ms. Wong said.

“That was kind of old fashioned music.”

“It’s called classical music,” Kylie retorted. She was trembling and tears made her voice froggy.

“Who was the composer, Kylie?” Ms. Wong asked.

“Robert Schumann.”

Ms. Wong nodded. “He was quite a famous composer. Has anyone ever heard of him or his music?”

No one raised their hand.

“Well.” She surveyed the students. “This is good music for you kids to hear once in a while.” Her tone was lightly scolding, but she was smiling. Everyone beamed back at her. She was that kind of teacher.

Ms. Wong consulted her list. “All right. Darren? You’re next.”

Kylie, her face burning, collected her CD and returned to her seat. She sank down into the chair, arms folded, and decided that never again would she try and explain her thoughts and feelings with this group. Darren, meanwhile, had brought a rap CD and was playing it while reading his own poem. It sounded stupid.

Everyone else loved it.

Welcome to eighth grade.


4 thoughts on “Schumann’s Ghost”

  1. Oh I remember this scene in EX! It was one of the best ones in the novel because you can almost ‘hear’ the concerto through the words.

  2. Tara, it was one of my favorites as well (as one might surmise, given it was written three years ago and I’m still waxing lyrically about it). Maybe some day I’ll post Kylie’s “Bach trance” as well.

    Thanks for the comment!


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