Symphony No. 1, in B flat major, Opus 3 8
I. Andante un poco maestoso; Allegro molto vivace
III. Scherzo: Molto vivace; Trio I: Molto piu vivace; Trio II
IV. Allegro animato e grazioso
The most romantic and personal of symphonies are the four by Robert Schumann. They are the outpourings of a young poet’s heart, who molds the classic form to his heart’s desire.
The ten years of Schumann’s career as symphonist were from 1841 to 1851; 184o was the year of his marriage to Clara Wieck, a happiness which colored all his art. He had waited long for his bride, and had known bitter hours of discouragement and frustration. For once in history a happily consummated romance did inspire a composer. Up to the time of his marriage Schumann had written entirely for the piano. He now literally burst into song, producing by the score a unique series of lieder, and then turned to the symphony. One day he read a poem by Adolph Boettgera minor German poet, a poem of gloomy cast. Observe how we make our world in accordance with our image of it! The poem begins with a melancholy apostrophe to the “dark storm cloud” and an entreaty that it change its course. It concludes with the line that set Schumann’s soul vibrating: “In the valley blooms the Spring.”
The best index to the nature of this work is provided in a letter Schumann wrote Wilhelm Tauber who was to conduct a performance of it in Berlin. “Could you infuse,” says our tone-poet, “into your orchestra … a sort of longing for Sprinig? … The first entrance of the trumpets, this I should like to have sounded as though it were from above, like unto a call to awakening; and then I should like reading between the lines, in the rest of the introduction, how everywhere it begins to grow green, howl a butterfly takes wing and, in the allegro, how little: by little all things come that in any way belong to Spring. True, these are fantastic thoughts, which only came to me after the work was finished; only, I tell you this about the Finale, that I thought of it as the good-by of Spring.”
A trumpet call, as from on high, is answered by a shout from the full orchestra. There is then a growing agitation among the instruments. The joyous tumult leads into the exultant main movement. This opens with a lively version of the initial trumpet motive, of which the rhythm dominates the movement. A march-like rhythm leads to the second theme, a lovely, plaintive phrase given to the clarinets. In the development of the material some subsiciary matter is added, but everything moves to the propulsive energy of the first theme, and it is impossible not to think of mounting sap and universal stir of life.
The return from free development to the first theme is preceded by the proclamation of the introductory trumpet call and the orchestral response. At the end of the recapitulation comes a long-breathed concluding subject, a hymn of thanksgiving for the new life that has come to the earth with the Spring; and again the victorious fanfare sounds from the skies.
Lovers of Schumann have special treasures, and surely a particular place must be given to the dreamily passionate song that makes the burden of the first movement. The melody of the slow movement, possessed of the fervor and languor of Spring, floats like a water-lily on the surface of the orchestral accompaniment; later it is played by the violoncellos with ornamentations of the violins. The movement ends with soft chorale-like harmonies for the trombones, and a gently interrogatory phrase of the clarinet, which is not a conclusion.
For the answer comes, after a short pause, with the virile attack of the scherzo. Scherzo movements in all the Schumann symphonies have a special character, not fantastic or demoniac, like Beethoven’s, but rather poetical transfigurations of German folk-dances. Some of the ‘dance rhythms are heavy-footed and redolent of the good soil. Others, less physical, evoke thoughts tender, mocking, gay. Schumann extends these movements beyond the customary proportions of the three-part scherzo form, which has earlier been described. And so in the scherzo of this “Spring” symphony there are two “Trios,” or middle parts, with piquant alternations of rhythms and of Lump’. Just at the end is a little, unique coda, a teasing afterthought, of the greatest charm.
,Schumann has told us his conception of the last movementthe thought of Spring’s farewell as she trips onward over the country-side. This is the lightest and perhaps the least of the four movements, but it is delicious. The introductory theme has he inflection of a light-hearted serenade. Now the music hurries, now it dallies. Shouts of horns and wind instruments, over rushing strings, signalize the gay fight.
Symphony in D minor, Opus 120, numbered 4
I. Andante; Allegro
IV. Largo; Finale
This symphony is actually Schumann’s second, revised ten years after its completion in i :41, and then published as the Fourth. It is discussed in this place, not for the sake of chronological exactncess, but be-cause its ideas influenced the works that followed. It was conceived in the same year as the -Spring” symphony, and was presented by Robert to Clara on her birthday, September 13, a year and a day after their marriage, and on the baptismal day of their first child. But it is very different from its companion-piece, the “Spring” symphony, being more introspective and more individual in the treatment of the form. No doubt the fact that Schumann revised the work a decade after its conception is partly responsible for this. He then altered both structure and instrumentation. But we know that the revised score is in essentials the one that he had earlier created. It is the product of inspiration plus experience, and the quintessence of Schumann’s nature.
Schumann wished this symphony to be played without breaks between the movements, all of which are associated by means of recurring themes. He avows no program and gives us no direct clue to his thoughts, but his purpose in the use of the repeated themes is manifestly for more reasons than those of structure. The motives have an emotional significance. They are as secret words coined by the poet for his Clara.
Some of these motives haunted Schumann for long after. The lovely brooding theme that opens the work is reincarnated in the symphonies that follow. Heard at the ‘beginning of the D minor symphony in the strings, this idea reappears later as part of the romanza movement, and also in the trio of the scherzo. And there are other thematic inter-relations. In the introduction, following the brooding theme, is a rest-less auxiliary motive. A moment later this becomes the principal theme of the main body of the movement. Later the same idea occurs as transition from the scherzo to the finale, where, the tonality changing from minor to major, it becomes a salient motive of the last movement. By these means the symphony germinates from matter heard at the beginning.
In the first allegro movement the agitated figure carried over from the introduction tosses restlessly for many measures. The customary singing theme is not heard of until the free fantasia has been reached, and there is no “recapitulation.” One mood, one thought, obsesses the composer’s mind, and that i:; one of rest-less longing.
The next movement is the exquisite romance. The melody immediately announced by oboe and cello is said to be a Provencal song for which Schumann had intended a setting with guitar accompaniment. This melody merges into the flowing phrase made from the material of the introduction, which returns here in so natural a manner that the two motives seem parts of one idea. For contrast and elaboration the re is a change from minor to major, with arabesques o: the flowing theme by the solo violin. The movement of subdued tint and pervasive melancholy, constitutes one of the loveliest passages in Schumann.
The scherzo commences with expected vigor, some-what after the model of the same movement of the First symphony, but what follows is quite different from the plan of the preceding work. It is an arrangement, in different rhythm, of the violin variation in the romanza. There is a wonderful bridge to the final movementdying echoes of the scherzo theme, then, over’ tremolos of the strings and horn calls, the re-turning agitated phrase of the introduction. And now the mood changes. What had been despondency and protestation becomes the song of love triumphant. Rapid figures give place more and more frequently to lyric themes. The motive that had indicated heartache has become a herald of happiness and the pace quickens, as if the hastening lover could not speed fast enough, as if he sang as he sped.
Symphony C major, Opus 61, numbered 2
I. Sostenuto assai; Allegro ma non troppo IL Scherzo: Allegro vivace; Trio I, Trio II
III. Adagio espressivo
IV. Allegro molto vivace
The so-called Second symphony, really Schumann’s Third, has melodic relations with the work that pre-ceded it. Schumann was in poor spirits when he completed this score in 1845. He was physically ailing, mentally distressed. If there are any signs in the symphonies of the morbidness which turned in the last tragic years to insanity, they are here. The introduction, closely resembling that of the D minor symphony, is a troubled revery. The main movement, while substantially -worked out, is feverish. Toward the end of the movement a horn figure already heard in the introduction, and destined to reappear in later movements, is sounded.
The scherzo continues in similar strain, a scherzo brilliantly and in places curiously written. The first part has a figure akin to the principal theme of the first movement of the D minor symphony, but wilder in mood, and the harmonies have more bite. There are curious alternating rhythms in the trios, the first of which, by a coincidence, is remindful of the figure that opens the march movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Symphonic Pathetique.” Some of the rhythmical groupings must have puzzled Schumann’s contemporaries. Here, too, is sensed a tragic undertone, and again we hear the horn signal.
As a psychological document this symphony might perhaps merit a closer examination than any of the other four. For the music lover pure and simple the slow movement alone, with its yearning melancholy, would be worth the journey. The melody mounts in pitch and in intensity to the inspired moment when the violins, trilling passionately, descend by semi-tones. There follows a passage of counterpoint, in staccato notes, introduced for the sake of some contrast to the sustained song. It is almost laughably artificialpalpably a transparent device, unsuccessfully employed. Not that it lacks plausibility. But this pas-sage, truth to tell, could have been written by a good conservatory pupil. Our Schumann is for the moment far away! He is in bad case until after some academic fussing he gratefully resumes his song, and that song fairly transports us by its expression, so simple, so touching, so laden with his native appeal.
In the last movementwe are now speaking of the emotional issuethe composer in a measure recovers himself. Brilliant chords and scale passages precede a passionate theme given solo wind instruments over a throbbing accompaniment. The movement gains in momentum; the final sounding of the horn is as a paean of victory. “In the finale,” wrote Schumann to George Dietrich Otten, “I first began to feel myself; and indeed I was much better after I had finished the work. But otherwise, as I have said, it reminds me of a dark time.” And elsewhere: “I sketched it when I was in a state of physical suffering; nay, I may say it was, so to speak, the resistance of the spirit which exercised a visible influence here, and through which I sought to contend with my bodily state. The first movement is full of this struggle and is very capricious and refractory.” But when Jean Verhulst visited Schumann in 1845, the composer said that he had just finished a symphony; and he added, “I think it’s a regular Jupiter”alluding to Mozart’s masterpiece. For the moment, at least, Schumann felt he had won his victory.
Symphony in E flat, Opus 97, (“Rhenish”), numbered 3
II. Scherzo: Allegro vivace
III. Nicht schnell
It will be seen from the foregoing that Schumann’s “Third” symphony was his last in actual conception. It is more frankly tone-painting than any of the others. Composed in 1850, this score is somewhat apart from the others. In a magnified way it is nearer related to Schumann’s inimitable tone-pictures for the piano. The composer thought of the life, the festivities, and blue and gold of scenes along the banks of the Rhine. The symphony has the peculiarity of five movements, one of which was inspired by the spectacle of a religious ceremony witnessed in Cologne Cathedral. But Schumann struck out the one caption he had put’ over the fourth movement, which read, “In the character of the accompaniment of a solemn ceremony.”
One trace of the Schumann of the earlier symphonies is here. It comes with the sudden appearance, in the midst of the festive tumult of the opening movement, of that haunting theme of the introduction of the D minor symphony! It is the voice of the dreamer, present in the midst of the thronging life of the people, of them and yet apart from them. It could well have borne the inscription which Schumann bestowed on one of his little piano pieces, The Poet Speaks.” For the rest, this opening movement of the “Rhenish” symphony is the most brightly colored page in Schumann’s orchestral music. And again, as in a former work, he chooses to give nearly all his attention to his opening theme, which is sounded at once with great festivity, and without the formality of an introduction by the orchestra.
The next movement is a swinging dance measure, full of humor and naivetea true “Landler,” or country-dance of quieter days. The laughter and folk-like simplicity of the first part contrast with the lovely sentimentality of the trio, a passage of special felicity. No other composer, nor Schumann himself, ever said quite the same thing in music, in the same felicitous way.
The third movement, though not so designated, is another romanza, less melancholy than that of the D minor symphony, and very lovely. Schumann’s art turns his longing sentimentalism to sheer poetry. In the fourth movement, the cathedral music, there is remarkable coloring due principally to the use of the trombones, and a special scheme of orchestration. All this is free tone-painting. The finale is an assembling of themes and moods, including a reminiscence of the cathedral music, which have gone before.