About this work
Schumann spent most of 1851 working on pieces in minor keys. In all of these -- two of the three Phantasiestücke, Op. 111, the Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 110, and the two Violin Sonatas -- we sense an introspective, fatalistic character imbued with uncertainty and tension. The string parts have few pizzicato passages or flights of virtuosity, and in the Violin Sonatas the violin spends most of its time in the middle register, never given a chance to soar.
The second Violin Sonata was composed very quickly; Schumann began the piece on October 26, 1851, and finished it on November 2. It followed on the heels of his first Violin Sonata, that in A minor, Op. 105, which was composed in mid-October. One of Schumann's comments on the A minor Sonata may explain his immediate composition of another work in the genre: "I didn't like the first violin sonata, so I wrote a second, which I hope turned out better." The Violin Sonata in D minor, Op. 121, was published in 1853.
Schumann seems to have been more comfortable with the intimate instrumentation of the chamber works than he was with a large orchestra. The intimate chamber-music genres allowed the composer to indulge his preference for intricate figurations and subtle harmonic inflections that are a salient feature of his solo piano pieces. Not surprisingly, the chamber works, aside from the string quartets, are clearly piano driven, with the violin either following the keyboard part or acting in opposition to it.
Generally regarded as the superior of the two sonatas of 1851, the Sonata for Violin and Piano in D minor, Op. 121, begins with a stormy first movement that resembles that of the Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 63. Marked "Lento, con Energia," the sonata movement opens with an introduction in 3/4 based on the primary theme. Detached chords outline the theme as wild violin flourishes lead to the dominant of D minor, preparing for the beginning of the sonata-form movement. As the tempo switches to Vivace, the violin quietly presents its turning, six-measure theme that traces the tonic triad, moving in sturdy half notes over lively arpeggios in the piano. After a more active secondary theme, the first theme reappears on different harmonies to close the exposition. Schumann transforms the main theme in the development section, all the while keeping interplay between the instruments to a minimum. Aside from a few accompanimental features, the recapitulation matches the exposition until the last possible moment before the move to the secondary theme.
A Brahmsian scherzo movement follows in 6/8 and marked "Allegro di molto." More often than not, the violin follows the piano in this D major movement, taking its own path in the central trio. Thematic links with the scherzo flavor the slow movement, marked "Simplice" and set in G major. Pizzicato triple stops on the violin open the variation movement with a melody that resembles the narrow-ranged material of the scherzo. Several episodes separate the variations.
The Finale, "Con moto," moves along at a brisk pace. At the beginning, the two instruments alternate the presentation of thematic material with furious accompaniment. In the development section, Schumann shifts between fragmentary development and long stretches of thematic material while exploring "flat" keys areas. After the main theme appears in D major, the movement remains in this new key until its rather forceful close.