Both of Schumann's Sonatas for Violin and Piano (the present item and the Sonata, Op.121 in D minor) were composed during his tenure as a conductor in Düsseldorf in 1851, substantially later than his chamber works -- Piano Quintet, Piano Quartet, and the three string quartets -- which have achieved a more general renown. As such, they present a different set of challenges and rewards than do those earlier works. Signs of Schumann's impending collapse are certainly evident in the A minor Violin Sonata, but not through any deficiency of musical value; the work's dramatic and psychological complexities speak for themselves.
The undulation of the Sonata's first movement is established by the unbroken sixteenth note figuration in the piano's right hand. The music is played out with great surges of emotion and activity; the ponderous tone of the opening bars is carried away to heights of more hopeful passion as the second theme appears. The development is concise, concerning itself almost exclusively with the opening motive. The move into the recapitulation, seamless as it is, is a master stroke, as is the manner in which Schumann adapts the harmonic motion of the opening to achieve a sense of finality.
There could be little more contrast than that between the agitated closing bars of the first movement and the gentle tones of the second, marked Allegretto. This is a movement with virtually no dramatic motion. It is, instead, built of the same stuff that formed so many of the composer's earlier character-pieces. Witness the gentle, essentially dispassionate dialogue between contrasting musical ideas, the one built on a delicately descending, syncopated motion, the other more sprightly, with spiccato textures and trills, but no more forceful in nature than its companion. There is also a third idea, in F minor, more smoothly melodic and entirely pianissimo, which makes one appearance and then disappears forever. The frequent fermatas are by no means mere separation of phrases and sections, but are entirely necessary to the character of the movement. The agitation of the slightly quicker middle section is brief, only affording the players an opportunity to make a few more forceful statements before, inevitably, winding back down into the intimate tone of the opening. In this movement we can clearly see the myriad persona of Schumann characterized in his youthful writings by the names Florestan, Eusebius, and Master Raro in outline.
It is difficult to say whether or not the third and final movement of the Sonata, marked Lebhaft (Lively), is of lesser substance than its companions, for, in the hands of a capable duo, its perpetual motion sparkles until the final crescendo, after which the three staunch chords seem somewhat obtrusive and unnatural. More often than not, however, the movement comes across as dry and unnecessarily repetitive. But surely the movement's apparent shortcomings result from its composer's quest to explore increasingly subtle gradations of musical psychology. The feeling of irresolution at the end of the Sonata can by no means be construed as unintentional, but rather must be seen as Schumann's effort to honestly explore the depths of his own increasingly agitated and complex mind, regardless of whether or not the resulting product corresponded with pre-existing musical values.