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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Symphonies of Robert Schumann

In many ways, Robert Schumann (1810-56) is an enigma. He doesn't quite fit the template for a Romantic composer like Chopin or Liszt do, and with Schumann there are circumstances in his life which to this day create controversy. The state of his mental health is perhaps the foremost of these, and all too often glib, offensive assumptions like "well he was mad so that's why that piece doesn't work" are trotted out by people who are often too lazy to examine the facts.

Schumann's music is certainly unlike that of his contemporaries. His writing for the piano is often criticised for being too thick and "symphonic"; his orchestration is often criticised as gauche; his approach to form and structure makes people unsettled when they want predictable, safe outlines to follow. In short, Robert Schumann was an artist, sometimes challenging the establishment, always expressing himself honestly, and creating music which has the ability to transport us to other worlds if we would but allow it to.

Robert Schumann (1839)

Schumann often worked obsessively; the famous "lieder year" of 1840 saw him turn out hundreds of utterly wonderful songs. The following year, 1841, saw him turn his attention to orchestral music, a field in which he had had little experience and even less success, and in that year he produced stunning, brilliant music, including his first official symphony.

In this post I want to look at Schumann's symphonic writing. There are four officially-numbered symphonies, but the terrain is a little more complicated than this might suggest. We have to go back more than a decade from the first symphony to see the origins of Schumann's attempts to write a work in the symphonic form.

In 1829 Schumann was half-heartedly studying law in Leipzig. He was living the student life to the full; his diaries record his hangovers with alarming regularity. During this time he did nothing to curb his musical enthusiasms and among his first compositions was a piano quartet in C minor, written for and played with a group of friends. This work was unknown to the world at large until 1979, when it was published for the first time. It's a work which shows promise but none of the originality or eloquence of the mature Schumann. [listen]

However Schumann clearly thought it had potential and into the score of the quartet he made notes showing he intended to orchestrate it and thereby turn it into a symphony. These plans came to nothing, but it's the first time we see Schumann's mind considering the problem of writing a symphonic work.

Schumann abandoned his legal studies the following year, 1830, and worked from then on to make a career for himself in music. Orchestral sketches were made in the early 1830s, probably connected with a plan to make an opera from Hamlet (which also came to nothing), and some of these ideas eventually ended up in his first serious attempt to write a symphony between October 1832 and May 1833. This was a crucial moment in Schumann's life, when he came to realise that an injury to the middle finger of his right hand was permanent and that his dreams of a career as a solo pianist would never be fulfilled.

This work was the start of a symphony in G minor; only the first two movements were completed. Today this is usually referred to as the Zwickau symphony, because the first movement was premiered in that town (where Schumann was born) in November 1832. [listen]

The house in Zwickau where Schumann was born

There is ample evidence in the Zwickau symphony of the fact that Schumann had been studying Beethoven's music at the time. Yet the amazing thing about it is that it shows much that indicates Schumann's own true voice, and not just an attempt to imitate Beethoven. The second movement combines slow movement and scherzo, itself a daring adaptation of form, and the fast central scherzo section has much to recommend it.

Later in the decade, from October 1838 to April 1839, Schumann lived in Vienna. He had thoughts of establishing himself there, at the heart of the German-speaking musical world, not only as a composer but perhaps more importantly at that time as a writer and critic. This proved to be a forlorn hope and he soon found Vienna largely a closed shop.

However during this time he did meet Ferdinand Schubert, brother of the composer Franz Schubert. Franz Schubert had been dead for more than a decade, but much of his later music was still largely unknown to the world and in the safe keeping of his brother. Ferdinand Schubert showed Schumann the score of what we now know as Schubert's "Great" C major symphony. Schumann arranged for the piece to be performed in Leipzig, with Felix Mendelssohn conducting, in December 1839.

Ferdinand Schubert (1850)

Schumann's ecstatic comments in a letter to his future wife Clara showed that hearing Schubert's last symphony made him wish that he too could write symphonies, although other things would intervene before he was able to do so. Among these was the protracted dispute with Clara's father over plans for Schumann and Clara to marry. 1840 was when Schumann was preoccupied as a composer with writing songs, and he and Clara were eventually married in the September of that year. But in January 1841 he finally sat down to write a symphony and within a mere four days he had finished sketching what we now know as the first symphony in short score. The orchestration took another few weeks but was complete by 20 February. By any stretch of the imagination this is extraordinary.

Staub: Clara Schumann (1839)

Schumann's first symphony has the nickname of Spring, and this came from the composer himself. Later he revealed that a pair of lines by Alfred Böttger provided the inspiration. In translation it reads:

O turn from this, your present course,

Springtime blossoms in the valley!

But when you hear it in the original German it's clear that the song composer Schumann actually starts the symphony by setting these words to music. You could sing them while hearing the opening bars:

O wende, wende deinen Lauf

Im Tale blüht der Frühling auf!

The symphony as a whole shows that Schumann finally was able to express himself in a form in which, even in 1841, composers feared to use because of the legacy of Beethoven. This "motto" at the start of the Spring symphony transforms itself into the first subject, and the movement is propelled by it on a thrilling and satisfying course.

Another feature of the first movement is what Schumann called "historical interest". This refers to the hinting at musical ideas which will be fully developed later in the work, or the recurrence of earlier themes in new guises. This helps unify the piece, something which composers of large-scale works like symphonies don't always achieve. But Schumann does it wonderfully here, with the mood of the second movement suggested near the end of the first, and the theme of the third movement stated quietly at the end of the second, and so on. The final movement is a playful and dazzling showpiece for the orchestra.

The Spring symphony starts at the beginning of this YouTube video, and the movement starting points are listed in the description. [listen]

With the composition of the Spring symphony Schumann was only just getting started in what writers now call his "symphonic year" of 1841. In April and May he composed a work which puzzled his contemporaries, the Overture, Scherzo and Finale. This work falls mid-way between a symphony and a suite and even today it is not often heard. This is a shame because it's a work of immense energy and beauty. It also consigns to the rubbish heap any comments - and you still read them today - that Schumann couldn't orchestrate. Ever since the late 19th century it was regarded as common knowledge in some circles that Schumann's orchestral works needed to have their orchestration altered - usually lightened, thinned out - to make them work in performance. Performances on period instruments, in particular, show this to be nonsense. The Overture, Scherzo and Finale demonstrates that Schumann could be as deft and as delicate in his orchestration as Mendelssohn. [listen]

As soon as the Overture, Scherzo and Finale was finished, Schumann embarked on another symphony, this time in D minor. This occupied the composer from May to October and is regarded by some writers as his most individual, most radical achievement of the symphonic year. The movements of the D minor symphony are interconnected to a huge extent by a network of themes which are adapted and developed across the whole piece, and not just within movements.

The D minor symphony of 1841 is rarely heard today because it was a failure at its first performance. Its innovations were just one step too far for the audience at its premiere in December of that year and so it was not published in Schumann's lifetime. Schumann subjected it to substantial revisions ten years later, of which more in a moment. However the original version was published by Brahms - against Clara Schumann's wishes - in 1891. Brahms felt the original version to be superior to the revised version, while Clara tried to make people think the version of 1841 was never intended to be performed but was only a sketch.

The original version of the D minor symphony starts at 2h05’54 in this YouTube video. [listen]

The Schumann house in Leipzig where the composer and his wife lived between 1840 and 1844

It would be another four years before Schumann would write another symphony, and in 1845 he began the symphony we now call number 2, the symphony in C major. The year before, he had toured to Russia with Clara and had suffered a great deal of illness on the journey, including depression, dizziness and distortions to his hearing. None of this "dark time", as he called it, is in evidence in the symphony, though, which he completed in 1846.

The C major symphony has an air of nobility about it, as well as an overwhelmingly positive mood. Again there are ideas which permeate the entire work, but perhaps the most notoriously tricky movement is the scherzo, which Schumann places second rather than third. In the scherzo sections the first violins play a virtuosic moto perpetuo, tiring to keep going and tricky to play together as a section. The only shadow, as it were, falls over the music in the ensuing slow movement, an emotional juxtaposition which Schumann gets exactly right.

The C major symphony starts at 30’23 in this YouTube video. [listen]

At its first performance the critics saw what Schumann had been getting at, and hailed the work as a watershed in his development. Similar acclaim met his next symphony, composed a few years later in 1850 just after Schumann had moved to Düsseldorf to take up the position of Municipal Music Director. One of his early biographers, who knew Schumann personally, claimed that the sight of Cologne Cathedral led to the composition of the E flat major symphony, composed in November and December of 1850. The work celebrates the culture of the Rhineland and for that reason has acquired the nickname of Rhenish, even though that nickname didn't come from the composer.

In 1851 Schumann wrote to the publisher Simrock that the work "here and there reflects a bit of local colour" and there is without question a popular tone struck through the work's five movements. Dance rhythms, especially those of the Ländler (an early form of the waltz), are evident, and there is much that is lyrical and of good humour. The Rhenish symphony was premiered in Düsseldorf in February 1851 and the audience greeted it with cheering; clearly they heard the local colour as well.

The Rhenish symphony starts at 1h08’12 in this YouTube video. [listen]

Robert Schumann (1850)

In the same year as the premiere of the Rhenish symphony - 1851 - Schumann returned to his D minor symphony which had failed so abysmally ten years before. In revising this he considered not even calling it a symphony at all but rather a "symphonic fantasy". He made some cosmetic changes, such as giving the tempo indications in German rather than Italian. But some changes were more substantial, such as recomposing some of the links between the movements and tightening up the finale.

The most controversial changes though came in the orchestration, which is considerably thicker and heavier in the later version. Some of the accompaniments are also altered to create a heavier-sounding work, and it was in this form that the D minor symphony was published as Schumann's symphony no 4.

The revised version of the D minor symphony starts at 1h38’14 in this YouTube video. [listen]

The Rhenish symphony, though, was Schumann's last completely original symphony and it marked 1850 as then end of the line, in one sense, for the symphony as a form. As music historian Richard Taruskin has pointed out, no symphony composed between 1850 and 1870 has remained in the regular repertoire. Plenty were written, but there was no innovation or true individuality in the symphony until the works of Brahms and some of French and Russian composers after 1870. It seemed as if Schumann had set the bar very high, which is a view with which I certainly agree.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in December, 2011.

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