Robert Volkmann (approximate pronounciation: Folkmahn) was born in Lommatzsch, Germany, on April 6, 1815. His father was music director for a church, so the father trained the son in music to prepare him as a successor. Thus Robert Volkmann learned to play the organ and the piano with his father, as well as violin and cello, and by age 12, he was playing the cello part in String Quartets by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. In 1832, Robert Volkmann entered the Freiberg Gymnasium and studied music with Anacker, going on to Leipzig in 1836 to study with C.F. Becker. There, in Leipzig, Volkmann met Robert Schumann, who encouraged Volkmann. They met again several times after that.
When he finished his studies, he began working as voice teacher at a music school in Prague. He didn't stay there long, and in 1841, he moved to Budapest, where he was employed as a piano teacher and a reporter for the Allgemeine Wiener Musik-Zeitung. He pretty much composed in obscurity until 1852, when his Piano Trio in B-flat minor caught the ears of Franz Liszt and Hans von Bülow, who proceeded to play it several times all over Europe. In 1854, Volkmann moved to Wien [Vienna], only to return to Budapest in 1858.
Thanks to the publisher Gustav Heckenast, who in 1857 bought the rights to publish all Volkmann's works in exchange for regular income regardless of sales, Volkmann was able to fully dedicate himself to composition, until Heckenast closed down his Budapest publishing house in the early 1870s.
While visiting Wien in 1864, Volkmann became acquainted with Johannes Brahms, and they became close friends. In letters they addressed each other as "lieber Freund" ("dear friend").
In the 1870s Volkmann began winding down on his life, composing very little. From 1875 until his death, Volkmann was professor of harmony and counterpoint at the National Academy of Music in Budapest. (Franz Liszt was the director there.). Volkmann died on October 30, 1883.
Most of Volkmann's compositions are either for solo piano or ensembles including piano. It was his Piano Trio in B flat minor that first brought him renown. During his 4-year stay in Wien, Volkmann composed his Variations on a Theme of Handel, String Quartets No. 3 and No. 4 in E minor, and the Cello Concerto in A minor.
Almost all of Volkmann's orchestral works date to the time of his association with Heckenast. (They are few enough to fit on two CDs.). These include an Overture for Shakespeare's play "Richard III", an Overture in C major, the Symphony No. 1 in D minor (which was a major success when premiered in Moscow) and the Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, dedicated to the Russian Musical Society.
Volkmann believed that a composer should be satisfied with creating in the listeners' minds the desired mood and impression by purely musical means; if the contours of the action and the plot are recognized by the listener, this should be considered a happy coincidence.
When Volkmann's Symphony No. 1 was played on a CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] Radio Two request show, in early 1998, announcer Shelagh Rogers remarked that "It sounds almost like a forgotten work by Brahms... almost."
Unlike the serious No. 1, the Symphony No. 2 is rather cheerful. Robert Volkmann's grandson, Hans Volkmann, remarks: "After Haydn, naïve cheerfulness was only extremely rarely chosen as the basic mood of an entire Symphony." For a more thorough listing of Volkmann's works, click here.
All of Volkmann's orchestral works have been recorded on a 2-CD set on the cpo [classic produktion osnabrück], with Werner Andreas Albert conducting the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie [Northwest German Philharmonia], and Johannes Wohlmacher as the soloist in the Cello Concerto. That Concerto has also been recorded on the Koch Schwann label with cellist J. Baumann and the Berliner Radio Symphonischer Orchester conducted by Caridis. Members of the Bavarische Radio Symphonischer Orchester have recorded Volkmann's three string Serenades on the Christophorus label. The Mannheimer Streichquartett [Mannheim String Quartet] has recorded the String Quartets No.s 1 and 4 for cpo. cpo also has a CD of the Ravensburg Piano Trio playing Volkmann's Piano Trios Opus 3 and Opus 5.
Check out the Conducting Mouse cartoon!
If you enjoy the music of Robert Volkmann, you might also enjoy the music of Bryan Ho, a medical student who writes excellent music on the side. Ho's Violin Sonata in E minor is in the style of Brahms. Then there's Harold Shapero, who's been writing in a neo-classical style since the 1940s, and his Symphony for Classical Orchestra [in B-flat major] is highly recommended.
If you have questions, comments, things to add or correct, please write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would especially appreciate MIDI files, links to orchestras and CD labels, and corrections on the spellings of foreign names.